Think Like a Freak: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: May 16th, 2014 by bobmorris

Think FreakThink Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain
Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
William Morrow/An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers (2014)

How and why mastering the economic approach will produce better answers to questions and better solutions to problems

In their latest book, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner cite several examples of people who trick guilty parties (i.e. those who prey upon people who are ignorant and/or gullible) into unwittingly revealing their guilt through their own behavior. Here are three examples:

o Two women appealed to King Solomon, both claiming to be the mother of a newborn. Unable to decide, he ordered the child to be cut in half and divided equally. One woman embraced the idea. He knew immediately that the other woman who begged him to let the other have the child was in fact its mother.

o Rock star David Lee Roth of the Van Halen group has a 53-page list of technical and security requirements. One in the Munchies section specifies “M&Ms (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES).” Immediately upon arrival, he checks the jar. “If he saw brown ones, he knew the promoter hadn’t read the rider [to the otherwise standard contract) — and that ‘we had to do a serious line check’ to make sure that the most important details hadn’t been botched either.”

o So-called “Nigerian scammers” send millions of email messages each month to millions of people throughout the world. (It’s called the “Nigerian scam” because more than half of the messages invoke Nigeria than all of the other emails combined.) I have received 3-5 each week in recent years. The “Beloved friend” message is always illiterate and ludicrous. Stupid, right? Not so fast. According to Levitt and Dubner, the Nigerian scammers know that almost everyone who receives a message will ignore it. But if only one in a hundred recipients provides the requested bank information….

“The ridiculous-sounding Nigerian emails seem to be quite good at getting the scammers’ massive garden to weed itself.” Those who think like a freak have mastered that skill. Some people use it to prey upon people who are ignorant and/or gullible. Others use it to identify predators.

In Think Like a Freak, Levitt and Dubner develop in much greater depth — and with a few unexpected wrinkles — some of the core concepts examined in Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics:

1. Incentives are the cornerstones of modern life.
2. Knowing what to measure, and how to measure it, can make a complicated world less so.
3. The conventional wisdom is often wrong.
4. Correlation does not equal causality.

Here’s another: One of the keys to success in life (however defined) is knowing what is worth leaving behind, and what is not. This probably what Don Schlitz had in mind when compositing the lyrics for his song, The Gambler: “You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away, know when to run.” And another, referred to earlier: “Teach your garden to weed itself.” Be sure to check out the discussion of the $2,000 bonus that Zappos offers to everyone who completes (and is paid to complete) a rigorous training program. (See Pages 128-130 and 150-152.)

These are among dozens of other observations by Levitt and Dubner (and one by Isaac Newton) that also caught my eye:

o When attempting a penalty kick in soccer — “protecting your own reputation by not doing something foolish — you are more likely to kick toward a corner…Sometimes in life, [however], going straight up the middle is the boldest move of all.” Although “the percentage of success for a shot at the middle is significantly more likely to succeed, only 17 percent of kicks are aimed there.” The Freak mindset knows and acts upon such percentages. (Page 7)

o “It has long been said that the three hardest words to say in the English language are I love you. We heartily disagree! For most people, it is much harder to say I don’t know. That’s a shame, for until you can admit what you don’t yet know, it’s virtually impossible to learn what you need to.” (20)

o “Thinking like a Freak means you should work terribly hard to identify and attack the root cause of problems” rather than waste time and effort responding to symptoms of those problems. (66)

o Isaac Newton: “To explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age. Tis much better to do a little with certainty and leave the rest for others than come after than to explain all things by conjecture without making sure of anything.” (89)

“Have fun, think small, don’t fear the obvious — these are all childlike behaviors that, according to us at least, an adult would do well to hang on to.” (100)

Note: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) once observed that he spent all of his adult life struggling to see the world again like a child. I am also reminded of advice provided by Robert Fulghum in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Share everything, Play fair, Don’t hit people, Put things back where you found them, Clean up your own mess, Don’t take things that aren’t yours, Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody; When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together; and Be aware of wonder.

o On the Smile Train’s “once-and-done” option to donors: “There is one more factor that made one-and-done successful, a factor so important — subtle and powerful at the same time — that we believe it is the secret ingredient to make any incentive work, or at least work better. The most radical accomplishment of once-and-done is that it [begin italics] changed the frame of the relationship between the charity and the donor [end italics].” (124-125)

When concluding their book, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner observe, “Now that we’ve arrived at these last pages, it’s pretty obvious: quitting is at the very core of thinking like a Freak. Or, if that word still frightens you, let’s think of it as ‘letting go.’ Letting go of the conventional wisdoms that torment us. Letting go of the artificial limits that hold us back — and of the fear of admitting what we don’t know. Letting go of the habits of mind that tell us to kick into the corner of the goal even though we stand a better chance by going up the middle.”

As I read and then re-read these concluding remarks, I was again reminded of observations by Alan Watts in The Book: “We need a new experience — a new feeling of what it is to be ‘I.’ The lowdown (which is, of course, the secret and profound view) on life is that our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing — with our own tacit consent, just as every hypnotized person is basically willing to be hypnotized. The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.”

Decades ago, I realized that most human limits are self-imposed, and, that it takes great courage to learn who we are (who we really are) and accept it, then summon the courage needed to become a better person, if not the best person we can possibly be.

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