Self-improvement is pervasive in human culture: it has inspired a vast trove of books, numerous industries, and countless resolutions. But how are our aspirations formed, and what are the best ways to pursue them? How do nature and nurture help us define and achieve our goals? Is the value of advice in the giving of it, or the receiving? The second event in the A Meeting of the Minds: Business and the Human series, sponsored by Chicago Booth and the University of Chicago’s Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, brought Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach, a psychologist, and University of Chicago’s Agnes Callard, a philosopher, together to consider these and other questions of personal development. Moderated by New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks, the discussion took advantage of each scholar’s academic perspective and expertise to examine how and why humans strive to improve themselves.
Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer: Good evening, everybody. I’m Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, the director of the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge. And I am delighted to welcome you here this evening for the second conversation in the series A Meeting of the Minds. A Meeting of the Minds is jointly sponsored by the institute and the Booth School of Business. Once a quarter, we bring together a faculty member from Booth, and one from the humanistic fields, including law, religion, and psychology, to have a moderated discussion around a topic that we feel is of interest to our society at large. Our goal in doing this is to reveal the symbiotic relationship between business and culture by engaging in thoughtful, perhaps provocative, unscripted conversations. And of course, we invite the public to participate, so that we can extend the conversation beyond what we say to each other on campus. Although to tell you the truth, business and the humanities do not that often talk to each other on campus.
In helping to organize such interactions, the Stevanovich Institute is carrying out one of our central missions. We consistently aim to leverage the intellectual resources at the University of Chicago to put different fields of knowledge into dialogue with each other. Because we believe that what comes out of such interactions can result in entirely new ways for us to understand the world around us. And my favorite example of this is when psychology and economics got married and produced behavioral economics as their offspring, which is now, of course, a fully recognized field. The Booth School of Business has been most generous in supporting this enterprise, and its faculty have likewise taken up the challenge with gusto. I am grateful to both. I would also like to thank my co-planner, Austan Goolsbee. And Jane Rodriguez and Macol Serda, for their seamless organization of these events. Tonight’s conversation will feature Ayelet Fishbach, the Jeffrey Breakenridge Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing at Chicago Booth. And Agnes Callard, associate professor in philosophy at the University of Chicago.
The conversation will be moderated by the New York Times columnist and best-selling author David Brooks. Mr. Brooks is currently a commentator on the PBS NewsHour, NPR’s All Things Considered, and NBC’s Meet the Press. His most recent book, The Second Mountain, was released in 2019. He’s also the author of The Road to Character, Bobos in Paradise, and The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. He’s on the faculty at Yale University, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And of course, given all these accolades, he got his BA from the University of Chicago.
I’d also like to briefly introduce our two wonderful interlocutors from the university.
Agnes Callard is an associate professor in philosophy. She, too, received her BA from the University of Chicago, in 1997, and her PhD, from Berkeley, in 2008. Her primary areas of specialization are ancient philosophy and ethics, which she manages to make exciting, lively, and relevant even to the most blasé of undergraduates. Professor Callard recently published a monograph called “Aspiration” about how it is we can make decisions or aspire to goals without knowing what the final outcome will feel like. For example, deciding to have children. Among her articles, the one I’m particularly eager to read is titled “The Reason to Be Angry Forever,” forthcoming in the Moral Psychology of Anger. Professor Callard has contributed many other articles to journals of philosophy and ethics, produces a monthly column for The Point magazine, and has written for the New York Times.
Our second interlocutor is professor Ayelet Fishbach from the Booth School of Business. Professor Fishbach earned her BA and her PhD magna cum laude in psychology in 1992 and 1999, respectively, both from the University of Tel Aviv. She joined the Chicago Booth faculty in 2002. Professor Fishbach studies social psychology, management, and consumer behavior. In particular, she’s an expert on motivation and decision-making. And she’s published in many psychology and marketing journals, including the Journal of Consumer Research, the Journal of Marketing Research, Psychological Science, and the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Her research is regularly featured in the media, including the Wall Street Journal, CNN, the [Chicago] Tribune, NPR, and the New York Times’ annual “Years in Ideas.”
Professor Fishbach is also the recipient of several international awards, and here I especially want to mention her award in 2018 from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology. The award is entitled the Career Trajectory Award for scholars at the peak of their career. So we are getting Professor Fishbach at the peak of her career. She’s also won awards from the Fulbright Educational Foundation, and, of course, teaching awards from the University of Chicago.
So here you have it. Two very different perspectives, perhaps, on the issues of motivation and aspiration. From somebody who works in marketing and somebody who works in ancient philosophy.
Tonight’s topic will focus on these questions in particular: How do people motivate themselves to achieve their goals? What does it mean to transform yourself into the person you’d like to be? What is the process of self-transformation, and what are the common barriers to self-transformation? As usual, we will have 55 minutes of conversation, followed by 30 minutes of audience questions and comments.
Please welcome Professor Fishbach, Professor Callard, and Mr. Brooks, Dr. Brooks, I should say, to whom I will now hand the reins.
David Brooks: Thank you, Shadi. It’s a pleasure to be back here for me. When I graduated in 1983, I couldn’t wait to get out of here.
And now I can’t wait to get back. I’m one of those people who realized how much the University of Chicago gave me. I realize it more with every successive year. And I feel closer to the school now than I ever did. I had a very studious career when I was an undergrad. I had a double major in history and celibacy.
And I really took to the Chicago form.
You know, one of the . . . A classmate said, “One of the great things Chicago gave me was enthusiasm for learning.” There’s a saying, “If you burn with enthusiasm, people will come for miles to watch you burn.” And my professors had that. They really looked at the great books and read them as if the keys to the kingdom, the keys to the secret of life were found in these books if you read them well and studied them. And once you’ve tasted that wine, you can’t go back to just, you know, Diet Coke. And so it’s fed a permanent dissatisfaction in my life. And so it’s a treasure for me to talk to a philosopher and a psychologist about, a little about that dissatisfaction, about personal transformation, about personal growth, and how lives happen, and how we either control or don’t.
I thought we’d start in . . . I wanna pick up right away that we’ve got people with two different disciplines coming at the same sorts of issues. And so I thought we’d start with one discreet topic and to see how you both approach the topic differently. And that topic is advice. Now I’m a columnist: that’s what I do. I give advice. And at my classes, I give a lot of advice. My students call my course Therapy with Brooks because I pass along advice I’ve heard. And I think it’s really useful to give advice, ’cause it feels so good for me to give it.
And so I’ll just, one bit of advice I always pass to my students on how to do marriage or how to deal with a relationship—and I got this off the internet, so it must be good—it was: “They say you should never go to bed mad at your spouse. And she said, ‘Sometimes, just go to bed. You’ll wake up in the morning. You’ll feel better. Just go to bed.’” So that seemed to be very wise advice.
The other bit of advice, she said, “If you’re a wife and you’re really mad at your husband, and you feel inclined to bitch about him to somebody’s mom, bitch to his mom and not yours.”
“His mom will forgive him. Yours never will.” So these seem discretely good advice.
So Agnes, we’ll start with you. How do you think about advice? What’s good advice, what’s bad advice, and how do, what’s . . .
Agnes Callard: If you have my mom, you should not bitch to her, definitely.
(Brooks and audience laughing)
So I don’t believe in advice. So we disagree. So I’m a philosopher. And the first thing I do is make a bunch of distinctions. OK, so let me distinguish advice from two other advice-like things. One of them is going to be, we’ll call it instruction, right? So what I mean by instruction is: Suppose that there’s something I wanna do, right? Like get my copier to work, or get across town, or whatever, and I’m like, how do I do that? And you’re like, oh, take this bus, or oh, just press that button. I’ll call that instruction, right?
So in the case of instruction, like, I have this pretty concrete goal, right? And, you know, someone just might have the relevant information about how do I get to that goal. I would say that’s not advice. OK. That’s perfectly possible.
The other thing I wanna distinguish from advice is something like mentoring or training, where you have a kind of close personal relationship with the person that you’re interacting with, and so you can kind of key them in to what will work for them, because you understand their psychology. You understand what they want. You understand that, like, in their case, the thing to say is, it’s OK to go to bed angry, ’cause of the way they work and the way their marriage works. So I also would say that’s not advice. I’ll call it, like, mentoring or something like that.
So what I want, the kind of, the dream I think about advice, is that we can, sort of, be totally hands off with someone and yet still help them in a substantive way, right? And I think you can’t do that. It’s sort of like cheap talk. Like you can say things that make you feel good, as they make you feel like you’re wise. So I think people love to give advice
Because like, they, you feel like you know so much, right? And in particular, people who have succeeded in life, like you, are often asked to give advice, as though, like, as though you know how to succeed. But of course you only did it one time, right? You don’t have (Brooks and audience laughing), like, empirical evidence of, like, trying it a bunch of different ways, so that you know how to succeed. You just know one particular path that you took, right? That’s not a good basis for knowledge. (laughing) So I think mostly it’s, like, it makes us feel as though the process by which we got to where we are now was one where we, like, knew all along. But that’s kind of an illusion. It’s kind of like a retrospective story that we tell. So I guess I’m gonna say I’m pretty skeptical of advice if we are clear in restricting advice in the way that I just did.
Ayelet Fishbach: So Agnes, as a philosopher, is starting with distinctions. I start with data. And so.
I give people advice. I also ask them to give me back advice, and then I see what’s more motivating for them, what gets them to act? And we did this with quite a few groups. We started with kids in middle school. These were kids that were struggling with doing their homework, and we offered advice to half of them. The other half we asked them: How about you give advice to another kid that’s struggling with doing their homework? And then we just observed it. Who’s doing their homework more?
It turned out that those that were giving advice were doing their homework for more hours than those that were getting advice. So maybe it’s about kids, and so we go to adults. We asked unemployed people how to get a job. “What do you do to get a job?” And when you ask, and someone was unemployed, to give you advice on how to get a job, the first thing that they say is: What do I know? And then you say, OK, but just tell me: What do you know? Turns out that they know quite a lot, and now that also once they give advice, they are more motivated to seek a job than after they get the advice that we were able to give them, which we were trying to give good advice.
We went to overweight individuals, again asked them either to give advice or gave them advice. They were more motivated by giving advice than by getting advice. We did this in a few other populations. One that was interesting was people that were admitting to having struggles with anger management, so angry people, basically. If they give you advice, how to relax, they’re more relaxed than if you give them advice how to do that. By the end of the day, I think that I might be closer to you than I figure out when you started. I think that giving advice is very useful. Getting advice? Less so.
(Panelists and audience laughing)
David Brooks: Now why is that? Is it because people . . . the advice is stupid, or else people can’t follow through on the advice because the problem is one of motivation and not information?
Ayelet Fishbach: Because people already know what to do. Because most of the time, most of the advice that we give people, they already know what to do. If you are giving someone who’s struggling with their weight advice what to do, they know. They know exactly what they’re supposed to eat. They know that they should exercise. The problem is motivational; it’s not with the knowledge. And again, I hate to agree with you. I think that we are supposed to be . . .
(Callard and audience laughing)
If the problem is not knowledge, it’s motivating yourself, then you can get your inner strength by thinking about what you know, by thinking about what you can do to help yourself more than by listening to me telling you the things that you already know.
Agnes Callard: I have to just say, I didn’t know about any of Ayelet’s research when I came to my conclusions, and I’m very proud that I got to them without any consideration of the data. So it’s a confirmation.
I think that, I actually do think that, sometimes other people know things that you don’t know, and they can help you. It’s just that I think that usually you need some personal connection in order for that to, sort of, work, in order for them to see what they have to supply you, what you need from them. Like, the . . . the sort of context in which we usually give advice, there’s such a space between the two people that that kind of, I think, the kind of connection that would allow for the flow of useful information isn’t there. That’s my hypothesis that’s based on no empirical evidence.
David Brooks: We’re gonna see this distinction through the night. The data distinctions, and I’m a journalist, so I just do random-ass stuff that seems interesting.
Let’s talk about motivation. Because we’ve spent the last 30 years with this cognitive revolution. Kahneman and Thaler and all these people, really understanding decision-making processes and bias in heuristics. But it seems to me we’ve barely passed beyond St. Augustine in understanding our desires, and where our desires come from. So I can choose to order broccoli or not, but I can’t choose to like broccoli. And so there are these distinct motivational states that drive us, and they well up somewhere deep inside. And so how do we think about that. Maybe I’ll start with Ayelet. How do we think about motivations, and how they’re lit, destroyed, buried, or inflamed.
Ayelet Fishbach: First, we’ve been thinking about motivation for a while. (laughs) Empirically, we started seriously thinking about motivation with that Walter Mischel study on delayed gratification. Thaler, who definitely made his mark studying decision-making, was writing about the planner and the doer, and that’s a self-control conflict. The doer is the person in you that does stuff, and the planner is, of course, someone who tells the doer: Don’t do it. So there is a self-control conflict.
We’ve been thinking about motivation. Yet, there is a lot to do. And there are many things that we are discovering now: how to think about motivation, how to think about motivating yourself. You were raising, for example, the healthy-eating problem: How do we get ourselves to eat healthy, more healthily? My research suggests that using intrinsic motivation is the way to go, so just don’t eat broccoli. But find a healthy food that you enjoy eating, because we find that what predicts healthy diet is one’s ability to find food that they like eating. What predicts adhering to New Year’s resolutions is your ability to find resolutions that you like pursuing.
So intrinsic motivation—and we can define it later—intrinsic motivation matters quite a bit for motivation. We find that being in a certain social environment, certain people support your motivation, so designing environments such that you are with people that support your goals matters. We look at how people manage multiple goals. We look at how people sustain their motivation by thinking about what they’ve completed thus far versus what is yet to do. We think a lot about motivation.
David Brooks: But what you just said, I mean, St. Augustine said that 1,600 years ago, to replace a lower love with a higher love, and don’t try to crush a love. I want to know where my dislike of broccoli comes from. Or why is someone, some students are just tremendously driven in philosophy, and some are not. And you used the phrase intrinsic motivation. But that’s a phrase that doesn’t, I wanna know what that means, like, what’s intrinsic? Where is the intrinsic field?
Ayelet Fishbach: What it means to be intrinsically motivated is to feel that you are doing something for the sake of doing it. And in the extreme sense, that rarely happens. So it’s hard to think about a job, or studying philosophy, as extremely intrinsically motivated in the sense that all the benefits are from doing it. There are usually also benefits from completing it. You will get a degree from the University of Chicago. But, people vary in how intrinsically motivated they are. That is, how much I get benefits from doing it, as opposed to only from completing it.
And this variation matters. The person who gets benefits from doing the thing while they’re doing it is going to stick with it longer. Immediate rewards really help sustain the motivation. If it feels good at the moment, someone will be able to do it.
I have to use data. So I will mention one piece of data. We went to the University of Chicago, to the library, and basically asked people, students as they’re entering the library, how much they enjoy whatever they’re going to study, and we also asked them to text us when they are done studying that. Oh, we asked another question: How important is what they’re going to study? OK, so it’s how important, how enjoyable, and then just send us a text when you’re done. And it turns out that what predicts how much time the student spends in the library is how much they enjoy the material that they’re studying. How important the materials are for them did not predict the time that they spent in the library at all. That was not significant. And for me that’s pretty strong evidence that the good student is the student that was able to get the immediate benefit from that, that was able to find interest and enjoyment in what they’re studying.
David Brooks: OK, Agnes, there’s a famous, I think it was Plato, could have been Aristotle—it’s been a long time. “Passions are like horses, and reason is the charioteer.”
Agnes Callard: It’s Plato.
David Brooks: It’s Plato. See? I knew it was one of those two.
Now what Ayelet is saying describes that that’s probably not the right model, that we trust the charioteer. Maybe it’s better to try to educate the horses a little better. What do you think about that? Just that charioteer model of how life works, where you have this very smart brain up here and it’s controlling our desires, and letting out the sluice gates when it wants to, and tamping them back down.
Agnes Callard: Well, in Plato’s story, the control thing doesn’t work out so well. The horses can easily, kind of, go nuts. So Plato was aware of that problem.
I guess I think it matters a lot when you’re talking about someone’s desire in something. It matters a lot whether you’re talking about, sort of, the beginning, the middle, or the end of a certain story. So you know, if we talk about you and how you don’t like broccoli, and like, I guess that’s, you know, probably that’s the way it’s gonna be for you. But my kids, like, if they are like, you know, two or three, and they only wanna eat beige things, that’s not OK, right? I have to get them to like some of the things that they don’t like. They might not immediately take any intrinsic, you know, pleasure in eating vegetables. So I just say, OK, no dessert if you don’t eat your vegetables, or whatever. Whatever works that night.
And so I think there’s a kind of longer process that we go through. So if you think about the things that you enjoy, like, that you desire to do, right? I get intrinsic pleasure out of, like, talking in front of an audience like this. This is fun for me. I like it. But I didn’t always like it. Like, I used to be scared of it. And I get intrinsic pleasure out of reading Plato. And out of, out of a lot of things, even out of, like, conversations with certain people that I, my best friend. I did not like her when we first met. We hated each other. We thought we would never be friends. And we became friends, right? So those are cases where my intrinsic motivations change over time.
And so part of what I wanna do is understand: How does the intrinsic motivations come into being, right? ’Cause we’re not just, they don’t just well up. We’re not just saddled with them. It’s not just like I accidentally happen to end up with a desire to speak in front of people, right? The things that I did in my life leading up to this moment are relevant to the story of how I ended up with this desire. And so what I look at in my book is like, how, how can we tell that story in a way that is sensitive, both to the importance of, sort of, environmental facts, like, that I happen to be, you know, ended up in a high-school debate class, and I enjoyed doing debate, and I failed at it. I lost mostly. I wasn’t a good debater, but I liked it. The fact that my school had a high-school debate team is relevant, right, to my enjoying speaking in front of people. But it’s not like, oh, you just throw someone in a high-school debate thing and then out pops me, right? There was something I was doing over the many years, say, between high school and now, where the way I think about it is, there was a value that I was trying to get into view, right? And at first, that value took a funny form, like, it took the form of, I wanna win this competition with this person. I want the judge to think I’m smarter than them, right? And that’s not like a great motivation for wanting to speak in front of people. It’s not perfect. But it’s also not that bad. It’s a start, right? And you might start, we start in not the same place where we finish.
So my kid might start with eating broccoli because he wants dessert, right? That is why my six-year-old eats broccoli. But that’s not why my 15-year-old eats broccoli. He actually likes broccoli. So I think that we can, we can have this sense that there is more out there to value than what we currently value. And we can sort of work toward it with, kind of, environmental assistance. And I think in terms of the students, like, I think, the way I prefer to think about it, you know, Shadi described, like, the most blasé student, but I actually don’t have a lot of those. Like, my students, I’ve never met a student who was totally blasé, let’s say. And some of them might be more excited than others, but I think of that as them being further or less far along in this process, right? They haven’t gotten the value as squarely into view as the others. And so the question is just sort of: How do you help people? How do you move them along so that they can get it better into view, so that they can be more intrinsically motivated?
Ayelet Fishbach: So the data: it’s a really bad idea to tell your kid that they will get dessert if they eat the broccoli.
It might work for studying philosophy. And, you know, and public speaking. But we’ve done some studies many years ago that basically if you add an instrumental benefit for eating veggies, for eating healthy food, that makes kids hate it. Just this month, a much-larger-scale study came out showing that that’s the same for college students. If you’re trying to add instrumental benefits to healthy food, they don’t like it. We don’t like to eat for instrumental benefits; we like to eat because it tastes good and so just . . .
Agnes Callard: So I have some more data for you, which is that I did that with my oldest kid. And it worked. So . . . One thing here is like, with kids, there’s a question, do you get them to put it in their mouth or not? It’s not about why they’re putting it in their mouth. It’s like, what will they put in their mouth? And they will, they, like, it can be hard to get them to even try something, right? And so I think you’re right that the fact that they’re eating it to get dessert, that’s not gonna make them enjoy it. It might make them enjoy it less, right? It might make them put it in their mouth, and, like, my view is if you can get them to do that a bunch of times, they kind of get used to it so at least it doesn’t seem gross to them. Anyway, that’s my—
David Brooks: There certainly is research that if you pay kids to read books, they read less. ’Cause the extrinsic . . . Let me ask you about a specific kind of desire, which you write about, which is aspiration, which is sort of a moral desire. And so most of us want to lead a really good life. And some people go to extremes to lead because their aspirational sense is so incredibly powerful. I have this little project called Weave, where I go look at community builders around the country. And so we go to Englewood and other neighborhoods like that. And we find people who have lived lives of radical self-denial ’cause they just wanna feel right with the world. So how do you think about that moral motivation, and how it arises and what its nature is?
Agnes Callard: Yeah. So I actually think of aspiration more broadly than just the moral. So I think you . . . aspiration covers all cases in which you’re trying to come to value something that you don’t yet value. So if I’m trying to come to value classical music, I count that as aspiration, OK? If I’m trying to value reading Plato, that’s aspiration. But also, if I’m trying to come to value being more public spirited, or even self-denial, that’s also aspiration. So they’re all aspiration.
Now. I guess I think that you could be asking two different questions about this case of self-denial. So one thing you could be saying is, how do people come to be that way? How do people come to have that as a valuational target, right? And it can be quite mysterious to those of us who don’t have it as a target, extreme self-denial, right? How that even shows up. And then the other is you might see them as especially aspirational people, like, sort of, full stop.
And I guess I think I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t take the second view. That is, you might think . . . suppose you just think you really understand why self-denial is so important and so good. You fully get that, and you’ve just devoted yourself to self-denial, well then you’re not an aspirant in my view. You’re . . . You’re better than an aspirant in the sense that you’ve arrived at your destination, right? So the point isn’t to always be traveling; the point is to at some point arrive at the value destination. So those people have arrived at the value destination of a certain kind of public spiritedness, self-denial, etc.
So I would say, in a way, they’re not somehow paradigmatically aspirational. They were, probably. And now the question is like, how do you get that as a target? How do you aspire to that? And I think, like, I do think environmental considerations are very relevant to, like, what targets show up for you. You know, having certain kinds of music even in the background when you’re a kid can be part of what sets those things up as possible targets for aspiration for you. But I actually think it would be an empirical question to ask: What sets that up as a possible target for someone’s aspiration? And I don’t take myself as an answer to it.
David Brooks: Do you have, does psychology give us tools here to . . .
Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah, so as a psychologist, we actually think about the level of aspiration, which could be similar to what you mean by target. So you have a goal: you want to listen, you want to play music, and then you can have different levels of aspiration. You might want to just be able to play a few notes on the piano. Or perform. Or be great. You want to get a job, or you want to excel at it. What is your level of aspiration within a specific goal that you decided to pursue? And then, as psychologists, we think about what determines people’s level of aspiration, and how we can influence that.
And so we study interventions, such as what kind of feedback makes someone develop a higher level of aspirations. To give you an example, we do a study where we either give people feedback on what they have accomplished before, or what they’re yet to accomplish. And what we find is that if we highlight what’s ahead of you, the remaining action, then people develop a higher level of aspiration. Thinking about everything that I can still do is pushing you forward. One intervention that can increase the level of aspiration.
David Brooks: What about exemplars? There’s a Spartan educator who said, “I make honorable things excellent to children.” And so holding up a high standard of what a model life should be, does that work, or does that make people say, “I could never do that”?
Ayelet Fishbach: My answer is not going to be very satisfying. It’s going to be in between. It has to be something that’s high, but not so high so that you’re going to say, well, I can’t do that. That’s too extreme. We would like goals, or targets, to be just above what you can easily get to. So you’ll have to work hard to get there. The 10,000 step is a good example for that. If you just do your regular walking, you’re not going to get there. But it’s also not impossible. So you kind of need to work harder than you would do otherwise.
David Brooks: Now let’s talk about how life courses develop and how they change and how people transform their lives. And I guess the first question is, do people successfully transform their lives, or are they pretty much stuck with who they are? And how do they make these decisions that are transformational?
Agnes Callard: Well, I mean, if you look at grown-ups, they’re, like, incredibly complex, and they have all these interests and passions and whatever, and you look at, like, kids. And they don’t have any of those. So I would say that looks like success to me, in a lot of cases. They didn’t just end up where they started. They ended up a lot further than they started, right? And now, of course, you can explain that in a variety of ways, right?
And maybe one difference, like, between the sort of psychologist approach and the philosopher’s approach is, I’m inclined to say, let me think about my own case. And let me think about what kind of story I could tell about my own case that I could, so to speak, live with. So I’m not asking, well, how are people motivated, or what do people desire? Other people, right? Psychologists are always studying other people, ’cause the data is other people, right?
But I’m like, well, look. I didn’t used to love philosophy. And in fact, I used to think I couldn’t do it. Even when I loved it a little bit, I thought I couldn’t do it, right? So I came to see things differently, but I don’t see that process as something that just happened to me, like, something that other people did to me. That’s not the story that I tell of myself, right? Other people are relevant, but I feel like I did stuff too, like, I put in a lot of effort. I put in a lot of work, right? My experience of myself is one in which I put in a lot of work.
So as a philosopher, what I wanna do is take, in a way, it’s a kind of datum, right? That my experience of getting to where I am, in terms of what I care about, what I value, what I desire, is that my own agency was relevant to that story, right? And so then I need a theory of what makes that possible, right? And in philosophy there’s a problem there. There’s a problem about producing that theory. Because it looks like what it is to exercise control over yourself or make decisions for yourself, is, like, to say, to be rational, and to think, well, look, here’s what I wanna be like, so let me take the steps that will get me there, right? But in these cases where you’re thinking about radical life transformations, the end point, OK, is some intrinsic motivation that you don’t have yet, right, that’s why you wanna aspire. And so why should you try to acquire that in terms of motivation?
Like take the classical music case, right? So suppose I wanna become the kind of person who appreciates classical music. But suppose I don’t appreciate classical music, right? Now one weird kind of case might be, well, but I wanna appear sophisticated to other people, and that’s why, this ulterior motive. That’s not what we’re talking about in this case of aspiration. It’s like, no, no, no, I wanna actually appreciate the value of, I think there’s something out there that I’m not responding to, right? So it looks like there’s a problem where I can’t be rational in deciding to come to value something, because the reason to value it would be the value of that thing, but I don’t yet grasp that value.
And so the theory that I’m trying to produce is to say, in what sense can it be a rational process, or a process for which you can consider yourself responsible, or a process that you can think of yourself as steering. In what sense can these large-scale transformative projects be that, be you choosing and doing and deciding, given that, in effect, you don’t have the relevant knowledge to make the decision rationally. That’s like the sort of paradox that I’m struggling with.
David Brooks: The steering and the agency, is that a model that seems compelling to you?
Ayelet Fishbach: Yes. And so we do look at how people grow, and how do you get from here to there, and I do develop a framework that enables me to study the factors that will predict how much people can grow, so how well they set their goals. How they sustain the motivation, how they gather the social support. How they manage multiple goals. And we can see that there are certain factors that predict growth in this model.
We are also less concerned with what I think you described as the self-control problem, with the idea that I want things that I don’t fully realize what they are, or that are in conflict with other things that I want. That’s OK. We have a planner and a doer, as I mentioned before.
I would say that also as psychologists, we care about creating the environment in which people can grow. And so say that, yes, I grew, or, you look like you can grow. And what I mean by you look like you can grow is that you’re in an event organized by the University of Chicago. You’re probably educated and self-aware people with access to resources that enable growth. But what about others, OK? How can we help kids grow? How can we help people with less access to resources? There is a lot of attention in our school at the moment to questions about poverty and how to help people with less access to resources to find ways to grow, to find ways to develop, and it’s getting much more complicated when you are studying people with less access.
Agnes Callard: Can I ask a question about the planner and the doer? ’Cause it seems to me that there’s two different kinds of planning that the planner does, and I wonder whether you draw this distinction. So like, one kind of planning that my planner does, is like, OK, before, like, this morning, I had to think through, what are the things I have to do today? And like, I’m gonna have to like, prepare for this event, but I also had to write a letter of recommendation, do this, and like my planner is telling me like, what order to do things, what I need to do, what I need to do in order to be able to do those things, where I need to be. OK. That’s one kind of planning my planner does, and my doer does it, hopefully, right?
But like, here’s another kind of planning. Like my planner decides, like, I’m gonna . . . Oh what’s the thing I got into recently? Bead. I decided I might want to get into making, like, bead art. OK, like, I’m kind of stringing beads together. Like bead tapestry. It doesn’t really exist, but I’m sort of thinking of inventing it. Bead tapestry thing. And I’m like, maybe I wanna get into that, right? And start making bead tapestries. My planner, right, is contemplating, like, should we do this? Should we take up this weird bead tapestry thing? And that seems really different from the case where my planner is doing the other kind of planning. So it kind of seems like sometimes the planner goes off the rails. And, like, she says things like, let’s do bead tapestries, or, let’s have a kid, right?
What if my, like, if I think about my preferences and, like, what I want out of life, before I have kids, right? My preferences are for things that are kind of selfish. And there are things like having lots of free time to myself and getting to read whenever I want to and, like, not having someone attached to my body a lot of the time. Those are my preferences. And then if I had a kid, I have, like, really different preferences all of a sudden, right? I’m like, really concerned this one person, and, you know, really allow them to sort of tyrannize me in ways that I would never really go in for before. I’m, like, kind of attached to them, right?
So those are cases where it seems like my planner is, like, kind of going nuts, in terms of planning things for me that don’t answer to what I already want. So from my point of view, those are really different kinds of planning.
Ayelet Fishbach: That was a very long question.
So . . .
Agnes Callard: My question is, do you recognize that there are these two really different kinds of planning? That is, you said there’s a planner and a doer, but I guess, my thought is that there’s a kind of planning that we do that’s much harder to understand.
Ayelet Fishbasch: So when we use the metaphor with the planner and the doer, it’s really your, your long-term goals. And what you end up doing. OK? It’s not planning your schedule, OK? And then open your calendar and say, well I’m going from this university meeting to that university meeting. That’s not . . .
David Brooks: The planner is the one that wants to watch the serious Swedish movie, but maybe next week. Tonight we’ll watch Spider-Man.
Ayelet Fishbach: Yes, OK, so that, yeah, exactly, right? The planner is really your long-term goals. You want to be a philosopher. You want to have a child but you haven’t met the person to do it with yet. That’s, things that you can set as life goals, OK? This is what I want to do. But not quite like, yes.
David Brooks: Just say, your slightly different accounts of how life progresses resonate with me on one level. On my career level. Where it’s a little stressing, you know, just getting out a little ahead of myself, trying to write a little better. Trying to aspire to be a better writer. I should read this stuff so I could do this a little better. And so that’s just, sort of, linear progression. And in my case, it happens to be a very boring linear progression. My career is a completely straight line.
But in my internal life, it’s not like that at all. And so my internal life, I had bad things happen to me. I had a shitty few years. I suffered in ways I never suffered before. I experienced depths of myself I’d never experienced and was unaware of before. I listened to a lot of sad Irish music. And out of that experience came a response, and that completely changed who I was. And so I had an interview with one extremely emotionally intelligent interviewer five years ago, and then I had one about six months ago. And afterward, she said I’ve never seen anybody change so much.
And it wasn’t because it was some plan, or it wasn’t some aspiration. It was bad things happened. And there was a certain way of responding to those bad things in a way that was open breaking. And so how does that experience, which I think most people have gone through some valley in their lives, which they say is the transformational moment of their life. And it’s more response than an action.
Ayelet Fishbach: So definitely transformation doesn’t happen just as a result of setting a goal. Life happens. And things happen that we didn’t plan, and they change our goals, and we might start to like sad Irish music. Things happen, and we respond to them. That’s a different process than setting a goal and going there. People learn from these setbacks. We find that surprisingly little. So there is much more information in failures than what people realize. There is often not so much learning. By the way, it could be that we so much emphasize that people should learn from failure exactly because they don’t do it. It’s, like, you guys emphasizing that you should eat broccoli because you don’t do it. So it’s nice when there is learning from setbacks. Not something that we ever assume will happen.
And we respond to life, and I actually you know when I was reading your stuff, Agnes, I had the same thought that it sounds like people have a real clear way where they are going, and what about just stumbling upon something? OK, I just took a class in philosophy and found it interesting. I never planned to be a philosopher. Your thinking was, or at least your writing to me sounded like, I already have a plan to become a philosopher the point where I’m taking my first philosophy class. That’s not how we think people happen. At least the social psychologists, we believe people are responding to the situation, what happens in life.
David Brooks: How did you become a psychologist?
Ayelet Fishbach: By mistake.
(Panelists and audience laughing) I tried a few other things. I didn’t want to be a political scientist. I didn’t want to be a sociologist. I was trying for one week to be a columnist. That wasn’t fun. And here I am, a psychologist. Mistake.
Agnes Callard: So I think that . . . My picture’s a lot closer to the stumbling picture, maybe, than I sometimes make it sound. It’s like this. It depends on whether you’re looking at that initial stumbling moment from the point of view of being at that moment or retrospectively, right? And retrospectively we can often see a lot more in that moment than we could see at the time. And we’re like, oh, that’s when I was first starting to get the inkling that . . . but like, at the time, you couldn’t articulate the inkling very well. But later you can.
So I guess my thought is I agree with you that there are all kinds of accidents and external circumstances that figure in how we end up where we end up, right? But there’s also . . . the thing that you said that really struck me was the response, right? So it wasn’t just that bad stuff happened to you. That’s not the explanation of what, the result, right? Bad stuff happened to you, and you responded in a particular way. And presumably the response wasn’t purely dictated by the nature of the bad stuff, because if it had been, you wouldn’t have even had to mention the response, right?
So I think that that case is actually not very different from the other kinds of cases that we’re thinking of. The way in which it’s different is that there are some experiences that are easy to discuss in front of people. You can telegraph the whole experience very quickly, like, efficiently. So like, having a child, or a career, or whatever. ’Cause there’s, like, a typology to it, right?
But a lot of the really significant stuff that happens to, like, a lot of the really significant value changes in our lives are really idiosyncratic. So it’s, like, hard to tell the story of it. It would take a long time. You’d need to read a novel or something. But I think what happens in a situation like that, where a bunch of bad stuff happens to you, what happens is that your, sort of, value framework gets shaken up, and a lot of that value framework was internalized from your society and people around you. And what you’re forced to do is be, like, wait, what do I want out of life? And what is it for my life to have meaning? Right? And you have to, in some sense, now construct a new target that is a little bit more the product of your own agency and way of seeing things, because your old target that was, to some degree, inherited, like, doesn’t work any more. And I think of that as paradigmatically aspirational. But it’s aspiration that, if we wanna get a kind of concrete grip on it, we’re often gonna wanna do something like read literature rather than philosophy, just because, it would take so much time to spell out the case, if you see what I mean. So I think of that as a case of aspiration.
David Brooks: Just a few more minutes before we throw the questions to the floor. We’re at a business school. Austan can correct me if I’m wrong, but it seemed to me for a while when I was a student here and one of my mentors was Milton Friedman that economists took utility for granted. Like it’s a black box they call utility. And people are motivated by this thing called utility, this thing called self-interest. They didn’t say, well, what is actually that thing? They just thought people were motivated by self-interest. And how do you think about, you’re actually at the business school. How do you think about the classical motivation that people are interested by their desire for money, status, and power?
Ayelet Fishbach: Yeah. So first. I’ve been in the business school for a while, and I never got a note about what I’m supposed to believe in. (Panelists and audience laughing) They don’t tell us that you believe in power and money when they hire us. We can totally reject that.
Well, I would say that you can explain a lot of humans’ behavior with simple motives such as resources and power. Saying that there are no exceptions will be wrong; incentives can backfire. Many people desire power, and some don’t. And sometimes looking for power may lead you to something that you did not intend to look for. We do look at the black box. We do look at how people respond to incentives. We look at when incentives backfire. I keep going back to the broccoli, but that’s an example of incentives that backfire, and we study that, and we study when it’s good to give external incentives versus to encourage the person to find their internal incentive, so do it because it’s interesting to you, because it’s fulfilling, don’t worry about what you can get out of it. We think a lot about the black box. I don’t know if I really answered the question, but it’s not . . . I don’t think that this all, not all. The traditional perception of economics characterizes many of us.
David Brooks: Yeah, well, I think that’s what’s exciting about this moment. People are now looking in the black box.
Ayelet Fishbach: So that has really changed. I do think, like what I see the tension between the approaches is we are much more into looking at how people respond to their environment. The old notion of agency is often kind of a decoration. It’s not really the thing. It was interesting. So when Agnes and I met for the first time, we talked about the book My Brilliant Friend, which Agnes teaches a class on that. So she knows much more, but I read that book—I read all four—loved it. And I thought that this was all about the situation, how people get stuck in the situation, and how their situation doesn’t allow them to do certain things that they would like to do that prevent them from growing. So for me as a social psychologist, that was a story about this situation. Agnes can say, well, it’s, for her, but it’s nothing about that.
Agnes Callard: Well so I read it as a story of like, you know, these two girls who grow up sort of in this impoverished sexist environment with, like, very few options before them and, like, one of them learns computer programming. The other becomes a novelist. So from my point of view, it’s this amazing transformation. They didn’t, and they both feared ending up like their mothers, and they didn’t, in fact. But there are a whole bunch of ways in which they are still constrained, so I wanna grant that.
You know, I think that maybe instead of saying, like, oh there’s something they should care about besides utility and money, status and power. One thing you might think about as, like, a philosopher is that it’s actually kinda hard to see why people care about status. So it’s already, like, in terms of utility, right? Status is a little mysterious. In fact, I’m just gonna indulge myself for a second. Because maybe not a lot of people know that Shadi was once my Greek teacher. So I’m gonna make a point about Greek. So this is something that I thought was a really cool fact about . . . there’s this Greek word doxa, which means, like, “opinion,” right? So like, my opinion about you. Like when I think about you, that’s my doxa, right? OK, but if you look it up in the Greek dictionary, you’ll find that meaning and you’ll also find the meaning “reputation.” So that’s also what the word doxa means.
And for a while, I’m like: it has these two meanings. Opinion, reputation. ’Cause those are two totally different words. In English, you look those words up in the dictionary, they mean different things, right? But I realized one day that actually it’s not two different meanings, because, my reputation is your opinion about me, right? So opinion and reputation in a way are two sides of a coin, right? There’s what I think about you, and then I can represent. My reputation is in you. It’s something in you, something external to me. That was really cool, the Greek, like, grasps that, and just uses one word for the two things.
OK, but, the fact that you’ve used one word for the two things doesn’t mean you’ve actually explained how someone goes from caring about the thing that’s in their head to caring about the meaning that’s in someone else’s head, right? And so the fact that I can care about status, that means things that are in other people’s heads matter to me. And the process of how we go from, in some sense, a really narrow sense of utility to a sense of utility that includes investment in the minds of others, is already in a way, blows open any kind of super narrow theory of self-interest.
David Brooks: Let’s go to the floor. I think there are gonna be some microphones floating around. All that I ask is that you make your question very Chicago-like. Long, highly intellectualized, with no question at the end.
Audience member: (inaudible)
Well the first thing. One of the things teachers know is that when, sometimes they pour into students more than the students are able to receive. ’Cause life hasn’t happened yet. So my professors poured Nietzsche and Kant and Hegel and Thucydides into me. But you don’t really know what Thucydides is talking about until you experience some things. And then I guess what has changed is I’ve gone, I don’t wanna make this about me, but that is how I make a living.
You know, when you go through a bad period. I read a guy named Henry Nouwen said, “When you’re going through pain, you have to stay in the pain to see what it has to teach you.” And I was like, screw that! Get out of the pain. But when you do go in the pain, you discover an emotional language that, maybe it’s just me, I think it’s a lot of guys who are not emotionally transparent. And back in the day, University of Chicago didn’t exactly help with that. And so then suddenly when you read St. Augustine and the depths of emotion that he feels, it suddenly becomes a real thing for you. And then you, you know, in a very schematic way, the desires of your heart to be infused with one another, and the desires of the soul to serve some uplifting good become much more germane and salient.
I wrote a whole book about this and I don’t wanna go into it. But it’s not, like, it wasn’t actually getting more agency; it was losing agency. I was in a self-sufficient life where I had tons of agency over my life. And surrendering agency meant entering into much deeper relationships with people around me. And the way I did it is I threw myself into all these emotional circumstances that were completely uncomfortable. Two weeks ago, I was at some touchy-feely conference, and we had to pick the guy next to us and sing a song into each other’s eyes.
And, 10 years ago, I would have shot myself. I could not have done that.
(Brooks and audience laughing)
But you get to a point where you harden some, you soften some of the thick soil, the crusty soil you’ve built on top of yourself through life. And so it feels more like a going deeper into yourself rather than shifting from being one thing to another.
Audience member: (inaudible)
Agnes Callard: I guess I’ll start. So I think that there are gonna be just facts about you that are, like, well, you’re born with those traits or whatever that are relevant to what you can come to appreciate. I’ve really tried with classical music. For many, many years, my mother tried, like, it does not seem to be working, right? That doesn’t seem to be where I’m heading aspirationally, OK?
So you might say that there are these, kind of, let’s just call that nature, right? So there are these natural facts, and there’s nurture, right, if we wanna just restrict nurture for a moment to like, what other people do to you and what your environment does to you. So I think both of those are relevant to aspiration. But that is not the whole story. That is, it’s not the case that the whole story of how you become who you are is some kind of sum of, like, who you were to start out with, and then what other people do to you. And I guess what I want to say is that there’s something else, which is a kind of work that you put in to get things into view. And I’m calling that agency, but I think maybe, you know, it would, it’s not the kind of agency manifest in kind of, like, decisions about planning.
Right, so maybe my thought here is that agency’s quite a lot broader than we sometimes give it credit for, and sometimes, like, allowing yourself to feel certain things and putting yourself in an environment where you feel certain things, and thinking you have to learn from that, that’s a kind of agency too, right? And that’s a kind of taking the reins of your life in the sense that you’re not simply allowing your life to fill the pattern that it had been going in. So I guess my thought is like, yes, there is the, you know, the inner stuff and the outer stuff. But then there’s just another variable in there, which is very important and which we tend to overlook. We tend to wanna tell a story in which either there was a secret philosopher buried in me from the beginning, or the world made me into a philosopher. And I guess what I wanna say is, like, that doesn’t resonate with my experience.
Ayelet Fishbach: Can I add to it? You are making the distinction between nature and nurture. And as a social psychologist, I would like to encourage you to drop personality, drop nurture, OK, use just nature. And this is not by denying that there are differences between people. You probably have more musical talent than other people in this room, and that’s nice to have. However, there is very little bit we can do with this. So we are who we are, OK? We have our personality, we are, you know, more or less smart, more or less musical, whatever. It doesn’t matter, OK? If we can just ignore that, and just look at the environment, and look at what kind of experiences we can get, what kind of learning we can have, there is much more that we can do with that. We can go through experiences as saying, I’m the type of person that can grow. That’s just not very useful. I have many years of practice explaining people’s behavior without using their personality. I would like to encourage you to just try for a while. It really opens your mind to think about interventions for others and for yourself that help you grow.
Audience member: (inaudible)
Ayelet Fishbach: So I think the question was whether philosophers need to have some hands-on knowledge.
You are the one to take that.
Agnes Callard: So I’ll tell you about some things that I’m working on right now. So I’m writing something for the New Yorker called “The Ethics of Breakup,” in which I’m trying to argue that there is, in fact, like there is, in fact, ethical rules to how you break up with someone, and, like, to just walk away is not OK, usually. And that’s, like, I take that to be an important philosophical question that we have not really asked ourselves, like, in the sense that we have this thing, like, all’s fair in love and war, and nobody thinks that about war any more, but a lot of people still think that about love, actually. So I have embodied knowledge about this particular question.
And, in fact, it’s my own experiences with breakups, and particularly a breakup with a close friend that forced me to ask this question. Like, where, like, 17 years after this breakup, I’m still upset about it, and I’m like, wow, something really went wrong there. And me saying to her, I just don’t want to be friends with you anymore. Maybe that was, like, really not OK, and that’s why I’m still upset about it, and I think that is why I’m still upset about it: it wasn’t OK.
So there’s an example, for me, a lot of my, I have this paper “The Reason to be Angry Forever,” and it came from the fact that I was really angry with someone for a really, really long time, and I wanted to understand, why am I so angry? And I realized it was really logical for me to be so angry, in fact. It’s what I argue in the paper, right?
So I actually kind of agree with you that a lot of the time, philosophers don’t consult their own experience in guiding themselves toward questions. I just wrote something about miscarriage and abortion. And not abortion from the, is it right or wrong? But what is it like to contemplate having an abortion, which I did. I think these are important philosophical questions, but I think there are a lot of questions like that that just have not really gotten aired in philosophy. Because there’s a little bit too much of a tendency to inherit our questions. And part of that is we have such awesome people to inherit them from. Like Augustine. And Plato and Aristotle, but they’re all men. So they ask a particular set of questions. There’s a lot of questions they didn’t ask. And so yeah. I think it is really important to consult our experience, because there might be a lot of other questions that we need to be asking, that we, like, forgot to ask.
Audience member: (inaudible)
David Brooks: I’ll take a quick stab ’cause I think I’m not disallowed. So Nietzsche has an answer for us here. He said, “Find the most beautiful things in your childhood and see if you can draw a thematic line through them. And if you can do that, then you’ll,” says he,” you’ll find the law of your very nature.” But the emphasis is on aesthetics. Is that we are called to certain things we find extremely beautiful. And that beauty tends to last. There’s a painter who was asked, why are you a painter? And she said, “I love the smell of paint.” It’s just the aesthetic enjoyment of that sense of paint.
Or else, and then sometimes it settles into a daemon, a problem we’re all trying to solve. I ran across a psychologist, you might know his name. He wrote a book called The Orchid and the Dandelion. He’s somewhere out in California, named Tom something. And his basic theory is that some kids are orchids. If they’re put in the right soil, they bloom and they’re tremendous. If they’re put in bad soil, they really struggle. Some kids are dandelions. And you can put ’em in any soil, and they’ll be fine. And I’ve always been fascinated by this thesis, and I got to meet him. And I said, “How did you start on this?” He said, “Well, I had a sister. And my sister was more brilliant, more beautiful, had a greater personality. And I’ve had this great career. She suffered from major depression. She’s got a PhD at MIT but suffered from major depression, and killed herself at 42.” And so his whole research career has been based on this distinction between him and his sister. Trying to figure that out. And some people are haunted by one thing that’s either very beautiful or very hurtful to them. And once they nab on that thing, they never quite let it go.
Ayelet Fishbach: OK, so after that, I’ll just have to be much more practical.
(panelists and audience laughing)
You developed your intrinsic motivation by trying out things, by exposing yourself, by having new experiences with some other place, where I think that we have similar views that just that trying out many new things is a way to grow, OK, is a way to collect experiences. Also, intrinsic motivation is really the feeling that what you are doing is rewarding as you are doing it, and many things will only become rewarding once you are doing them for a while. OK. It’s hard to think about something that you are doing for the first time that requires any effort and that is immediately rewarding. So it’s over, the experience of doing something that you develop the passion for it. And then it takes you. And then it carries you on. So keep exploring.
Audience member: (inaudible)
Agnes Callard: I’ll say one thing, which is that I didn’t use the word, but when I was distinguishing between advice and mentorship, I think the crucial relationship that allows for a person to help another is trust. That’s interpersonal trust. You’re in a way referring to intrapersonal trust, like trusting yourself, right? And I would say there, the place where that would show up for me is that if you think of the difference between an aspirant, so someone who’s trying to come to value something new versus someone who’s succeeded, at the end of that process, the person who’s trying, there will be lots of trust and fear. Because they wouldn’t already know that it was going to work out, right? So some of that problem of, like, for me, you know, that I’m dealing with philosophically of how can it be rational to try to get yourself to value something new is the sort of compromised rationality of that process is a matter of these kind of emotional reactions. Of having trust and fear instead of something else, which is better than trust and fear, right? It’s better when you reach the end point. So trust and fear are the compromised case, or the case that shows that you’re still on your way.
Ayelet Fishbach: From a psychological point of view, we didn’t talk about resources. And the way you talk about trust is a resource. OK? Now let’s think about what are the resources that we bring into our pursuit, OK? Well, it might be material resources. OK, I can afford it. It might be that I have the social network. I have other people that can support me. I have other people that will enable me to get out of these difficult situations. And it might be, what you call trust, and I would actually call confidence, because I reserve trust, maybe you meant it, I reserve trust more to trusting other people, trust that they will help me, that they will be there for me, and then there is the confidence in myself, which is the trust in myself that I will be OK. And that’s a major resource. It actually also that the main predictor of how much people can learn from negative feedback and what you are describing, our extreme examples of getting negative feedback, of failing, and confident people. People who trust themselves can better learn from that.
David Brooks: OK, I think we should wrap it up there. I once based a book on the distinction between the résumé and the eulogy virtues. And the résumé, the things that make you good at your job, the eulogy are the things that people say after you’re dead. Whether you’re courageous, capable of great love, self-understanding, aspiration, and even in the belly of the résumé, I think we’ve wrote a little eulogy, so I thank you for a splendid conversation.
Agnes Callard: Thank you.
Ayelet Fishbach: Thank you.
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