The Fabulous Freakonomics Fellows Are at It Again
If you haven’t read Freakonomics, the original collaboration between Stephen Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and Stephen J. Dubner, a New York Times journalist, you should probably start with that one. (Most of your friends have an old copy lying around, so ask.) The most popular, readable, and (arguably) important economics book of 2005, it began the brand, of which Think Like A Freak is the latest installment.
The other 85% of you, who are familiar with the previously released Freakonomics trilogy, the 2010 documentary, and/or the award-winning podcast, know the thesis: Tough problems can often be solved by changing your perspective.
But, how do you change your perspective? Freakonomics aficionados might begin by applying models borrowed from economics to all sorts of complex issues. But there are other ways, and this book outlines several.
Does it stand up to its predecessors? Not really. It was a great read, enjoyable and educational, but there’s not a lot of new material. If it’s been a while since you got your Freakonomics on, however, it may be just what you need to get your brain back outside of the box.
Lesson 1: The Everyday Uncertainty Principle
What are the three most difficult words to say in the English language? If you said, “I don’t know,” you’re already ahead of the game.
The world of problem solving is rife with educated guesses, wild speculation, and correlation masquerading as causation. Which is fine. You have to start somewhere.
When this type of brainstorming is presented as knowledge, an expert solution, or worst of all, information, that’s when you run into problems.
If only Rumsfeld had listened to these wise, if oft ridiculed, words rather than confidently telling the USA, “I can’t tell you if the use of force in Iraq today would last five days, or five weeks, or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.” It would be a different world.
The book offers methods of parsing reliable facts from convincing conjecture, using examples from experts, data sets, and “grand unified theories” of social issues that no one fully understands, much less have been able to actually solve.
Lesson 2: Try Reinventing the Wheel
You can often see further standing on shoulders of giants, but sometimes solutions are buried beneath months, years, or generations of temporary fixes. Consider starting from scratch.
Among many examples of this important principle, our favorite discussed how a young scientist, Barry Marshall, found a cure for the common ulcer.
Older readers may remember ulcers as a common and painful intestinal issue that could only be treated, not cured. Stress and spicy food were considered the culprits, with most sufferers condemned to a lifetime of prescription-strength antacids—an $8 billion industry by the early 1980s.
Marshall, rather than studying the effects of stress and spice, ignored those decades of research. Instead, he took fresh samples of stomach acid, where he found familiar and dangerous bacterium, Helicobacter pylori. It was present in the stomachs of every single ulcer patient he tested.
Without the reputation or connections to get attention for his discovery, he drank a beaker full of Helicobacter pylori himself. Within five days, he’d developed and ulcer. After a round of antibiotics, it was gone. He wrote a paper.
“Marshall was variously ridiculed, pilloried, and ignored,” write Levitt and Dubner. “No $8 billion industry is ever going to be happy when its reason for being is under attack.” Eventually, however, his cheap, easy cure for ulcers was adopted around the world.
Lesson 3: Think Small
There are a lot of big problems out there, and if you’re a big thinker, you may well be the one to solve them. Levitt and Dubner, however, would rather most of us think small.
This may sound a bit defeatist, but an example of “small thinking” (from the original Freakonomics book) was one of Chainsaw Communications most popular presentation pieces. With good reason.
When Jerry Sternin of Save the Children was asked to help stop malnutrition in Vietnam, he didn’t try to solve the struggling nation’s enormous economic and infrastructure issues. Instead, he studied how a few families in poor, undeveloped communities were keeping their kids healthy.
He noticed they were incorporating shrimp and sweet potato leaves into small, frequent meals. So, he recommended that other families do the same. It worked, and the health of tens of thousands of children improved. The experience was codified as Positive Deviance, a blueprint NGOs now use all over the world.
Thinking small can have big results.
Lesson 4: Offer Your Audience What They Really Want
Most people don’t know what they really want. It’s often not what they think. But, if you want to incentivize something, you need to uncover their underlying desires.
Of course Miss Universe contestants wants world peace. We all want world peace. Dig deeper, however, and you may find that she really wants to win the competition, get out of those ridiculous shoes, and have a decent meal, in that order. She’ll get around to world peace when her stomach stops rumbling.
The most effective incentives don’t usually appeal to our better nature. Image by Pavel L photo and video.
Incentives work better when they take human nature, and Maslow’s Pyramid, into consideration. The Freakonomics crew offers excellent ideas for figuring out what your target audience truly wants, while avoiding their ingrained avoidance strategies. It’s not always pretty, but it works.
Lesson 5: Use Game Theory
The most entertaining chapter of the book asks, “What do King Solomon and David Lee Roth have in common?” Both are Jewish, both made love to many beautiful women, and both used game theory to solve problems.
The Freakonomics team defines game theory as “the art of beating your opponent by anticipating his next move” and more colorfully as “teaching your garden to weed itself.” It’s a big subject, and we recommend Robert Wright’s classic Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny if you want to learn more.
But this chapter is a nice intro. You’re already familiar with the Judgment of Solomon, wherein Solomon correctly identified a baby’s real mother by asking which woman would refuse to kill it. David Lee Roth’s dilemma required more subtlety.
We’re just posting this because Van Halen ruled.
Van Halen’s stage show used an unprecedented amount of equipment and pyrotechnics. They had to make sure that the 53-page rider was followed with perfect precision, or do a time-consuming check of their equipment before every show. So Roth buried, deep within the document, instructions that they be served a bowl of M&Ms, with all the brown ones removed.
This was seen as the very epitome of celebrity petty privilege, but served a purpose. If a brown M&M was present, they did the full equipment check. If not, the show could go on.
How can you teach your garden to weed itself?
How to Persuade People Who Don’t Want to Be Persuaded
If you don’t know much about marketing, this chapter is probably worth reading, but regular readers of our blog could probably skip it.
They begin with common cognitive biases that protect our precious opinions and beliefs from any onslaught of facts, then offer several strategies for getting around them.
The power of story is highlighted with this fun fact: Only 71% of US citizens can name even one of the Ten Commandments, and only 14% got all ten. (27% of US citizens describe themselves as “evangelical Christians.” Ahem.) Almost all of us, however, can remember why Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden.
Our brains are receptive to stories for a variety of reasons, while a bullet point list just doesn’t stick.
We’ve been telling you that all along.
Lesson 6: Know When to Quit
To quit or not to quit? That is a question your brain is ill-equipped to answer logically.
The final chapter covers the upside of quitting, despite the numerous aphorisms arguing otherwise. But, while legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi told us that “quitters never win, and winners never quit,” the Freakonomics crew devised an experiment testing whether or not that was actually true.
Your brain is designed to keep you in the game. The sunk-cost fallacy keeps you going because you’ve already invested in a bad idea. Instead, “quit while you’re ahead.” Ignoring opportunity costs, the value of what you could be accomplishing instead, also tricks you into making decisions that keep hurting you.
How can you correct for all that cognitive blather?
With a coin toss. Some 40,000 volunteers agreed to quit doing something they already felt ambivalent about, if it came up tails. At least 60% followed through. Most of them ended up happier.
Which brings us back to Think Like A Freak. This is a pretty good book, sure. But we think we’ve got it. And there’s a stack of worthwhile tomes from here to the International Space Station just waiting to be read; that’s quite the opportunity cost. And so, we flipped a coin.
We love you, Freakonomics, but thanks to your great advice, we can quit you. Unless your next book introduces a few brand-new ideas, we’ll probably be reading something else.