I didn’t get around to reading Freakonomics until 2007, but loved it, and immediately read Superfreakonomics, which while also good was less remarkable. It did draw me to the blog, and latterly the podcast which I download and listen to each week. When Dubner and Leavitt (D&L) announced their third book, I was happy to pre-order. (Pretty annoying that we Brits had to wait a whole extra day to get it – in the US it was released at just after midnight on Monday 12 May, it didn’t become available in Britain until the 13th!) That having been said, it downloaded onto my Kindle this morning and I’ve read it cover to cover.
“The plural of anecdote is not data”, the authors remind us, and I suppose that the one criticism I would level at this book is that quite a lot of the characteristics of “Freak” thinkers are based on singular or occasional observations by the authors and their many collaborators/cited sources. While the earlier books focussed mainly on Professor Leavitt’s research into criminal and other rule breaking activities and referenced what were clearly large data sets, that seems to be less the case here. This is a book that is based as much on psychology as it is on economics and statistics, although there is a light sprinkling of economic concepts - sunk costs, opportunity costs, incentives to name just a few.
This book is a manual of sorts to help thinking about the way that the authors do. There is a slight feel of a self-help book, but with such laid back authors, there’s no feeling of being presented with an insurmountable challenge – the first bit of advice to help you “Think like a Freak” is to admit you don’t know, and the last is to quit if you want to – it might make you happier. Other advice includes “ask a different question”, “find the root of the problem”, “have fun”, “treat people decently”, but D&L do come at these from “a different angle” (another of their recommendations) so while listed here these may seem obvious or commonplace, it doesn’t read that way. Some other exhortations – like “Teach Your Garden to Weed Itself” are certainly more original. There are plenty of references to economics and statistics –to name but a few – but less so than in the two earlier books.
On a technical level, the book is makes excellent use of ebook technology. The links to the extensive notes (about 40 pages out of 255 of so) were the easiest to access and get back from that I can recollect in a Kindle book. (The link to a web-site was less rewarding – not something Kindles deliver very well – but would probably work better on a tablet). The book had been excellently edited too, although just one query: surely Dave Le Roth would have trashed the dressing room if there were brown M&M’s (p214)?
This is an interesting book, it’s funny in parts, and I recommend it. Whether it will actually help people think in different ways is another question, but then that is just the same problem as with most regular self-help books. I may have been slightly under-awed as it became clear, as I read through the book, that much of the material had already been used in their excellent podcast, and if you haven’t been following that it’ll probably seem much more original.
on 9 June 2014
This is a very quick read. While better than the flawed Superfreakonomics it is very different from the original book. Fewer examples and interesting pieces, more a companion to the first book and covering much the same ground as their podcast.
If you pick this up cheap it's worth the hour or two it'll take you to read, but if you've not read Freakonomics that is the book to go for.
on 1 November 2014
I've read the other 2 freakanomics books, and though this one is just as entertaining I'm not sure it says anything about how to think that you wouldn't pick up from the first and/or second book(s).
It's a very similar format - give us a story about somebody that looked at the world in a slightly different way to solve a long standing problem that others had tried and failed with (or perhaps not even thought about thinking about). This book makes a point of saying "look what they did there", but otherwise it's the same.
That being said, it's still an entertaining and enlightening read, and well worth the short amount of time it takes to get through. If you haven't read the other books though I'd suggest starting with them. They're perhaps a bit more substantial than this one.
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 composing 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 suggestion 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 [begin italics] [end italics]. We heartily disagree! For most people, it is much harder to say [begin italics] [end italics]. 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 the best person we can possibly be.
on 6 June 2014
Too short, interesting as previous books were. Unfortunately, feels lightweight compared with previous books. Personally I was disappointed. Contains a few real gems however and overall I enjoyed it!
on 7 December 2014
They obviously ran out of new material so retold the old stories under the guise of some very weak 'think like a freak' analysis. Like a cheap/lazy flashback episode of your favourite TV series. Just read the first 2 books and skip this one, there is nothing new here.
on 3 August 2014
Another Super Book for the Freakonomics duo. If you subscribe to the Freakonomics podcasts then you will be familiar to many of the anecdotes told in the book. If you are a fan of the material, then this book is not a revelation but more a cheat sheet in good decision theory. The authors are promoters of data driven decisions. They apply economic theory and the scientific method to public policy (and other) decisions. In this book they introduce you to how you can do the same. If you have an influence on public policy decisions you need to read this book. You will read it on the plane (there and back!) There are 9 chapters each with its own message - well illustrated with real stories.
The Chapters are [with my summary in brackets]:
1) What Does It Mean to Think Like a Freak?
[You need data and you need to understand cause and effect]
2) The Three Hardest Words in the English Language
[I won't spoil it!]
3) What's Your Problem?
[How you define the problem drives the answer. Lean practitioners and six sigma belts - this will give you some "real" life examples to use]
4) Like a Bad Dye Job the Truth Is in the Roots
[Address the cause - not the symptoms]
5) Think Like a Child
[Ask the daft question - Why?]
6) Like Giving Candy to a Baby
[The Power of Incentives]
7) What Do King Solomon and Dave Lee Roth Have in Common?
[A clever test... with Game Theory]
8) How to Persuade People Who Don't Want to Be Persuaded
[The Science of Persuasion]
9) The Upside of Quitting
[If at first you don't succeed... try something easier instead! - Actually the danger of sunk costs.]
I really enjoyed the book - Highly recommended.
The message of the first two books was that people respond to incentives. The message of the third book is that the authors are cool. Too cool.
They can see through David Cameron's dedication to the NHS (he lost a kid to grave illness); they feel qualified to discuss football (that they grew up calling soccer); by now they're old enough to have had children that they bring into the discussion and they are soooooo smug about having gotten some wannabe UK terrorists to buy health insurance.
While I don't doubt for one second that these are some very important people, they don't need to talk down to me so much.
They quote George Bernard Shaw, but then they recast one of his famous exchanges with a woman as one between "an economist" and a Vegas entertainer. They propose that governments issue bonds that behave like lottery tickets without bothering to check that the UK has been selling Premium Bonds since 1956.
They've gotten sloppy, bottom line.
I take particular issue with the penalty kick example: Statistically speaking, the authors inform us, football players who take penalty kicks would do better to shoot straight down the middle, but allegedly they don't because they don't want to look silly if the goalie does not jump to the side. They're, you know, self-motivated and they put their interest in not looking stupid before the team's interest in winning.
What if the guy taking the shot kicks the ball just a tad off the middle and actually MAKES IT EASY for the goalie? Is that not the more plausible explanation for not aiming straight? Same way he can't be guaranteed to get the corner without potentially hit the post, he probably also can't be guaranteed to send it perfectly straight down the middle no? How about that, Messieurs Levitt and Dubner?
I completely lost patience when I read their apocryphal story about some British occupying force guy in Palestine insisting on a cold beer. REALLY? A British guy who prefers cold beer to warm beer?
The last chapter of the book is about quitting. The authors explain how sometimes it's better to give up. A chapter on quitting while you're still ahead would have been more apropos. They should have padded out Freakonomics with about half the examples in Superfreakonomics and left it there!
That said, this is not a bad book. It was an entertaining and undemanding read, just what I needed on my late night flight to Ibiza last Friday. But it's not to the same standard as Freakonomics. Which is a shame, because these guys can do (and have done) better.
I was really excited to see the authors of Freakonomics/Superfreakonomics had a new collaboration coming out. Those books definitely had an effect on how I look at things, and I had high hopes for this new effort.
It's not the same as their previous works, I would start by saying. While there are anecdotes (or rather, stories, as they'd call them), it's much more like a self-help book in the sense that they offer lessons of how to think like a Freak (an economist) about the world, problems big and small, your life.
It's still funny though. And informative. They offer tidbits from their own lives, how they got where they are today, more experimental research they've been involved in. I think one of my favourite stories was about the hot-dog eating champion, and how he used his own research to improve his eating performance to win at championships. But it's all there - why slave owners licked their slaves, why David Lee Roth insisted on no M&Ms on his music tours, Nigerian scammers.
There's something for everyone. It's far-reaching, mind-expanding, and just might change the way you see the world. I've started listening to their podcasts since reading this, and am enjoying those.
Great stuff, highly recommend. If you haven't read their above-mentioned books before, do look them up as well. Some of the best non-fiction I've ever tried.
on 21 May 2016
A short, neat book which seems to be primarily an inspiration piece, but none the worse for that. Although it does have some "case studies" of actual research, all of which are interesting enough, the purpose of the book is to examine how one might bring economics - and robust stat-based psychology - into thinking about problems, and how to think about how to tackle those problems. Two examples will hopefully illuminate what I mean: firstly, the emphasis on re-framing the question to solve the actual problem, where most problems are actually examined through a framework which already presumes that certain types of solutions will be the ones adopted; secondly, a basic guide to incentives, which get you to think about how incentives actually work and how to think about using the incentives to achieve what you actually want them to, whilst avoiding secondary outcomes you don't. And to re-assure (?) you that any incentive system will be gamed to some degree. Hopefully this gives an indication of the sort of thing that the book is aimed at. Other reviewers have remarked that there is a slight "self-help" feel to the book, both in tone and aim - I'd agree with that.
The writing is clear and engaging and avoids off-putting professional jargon. The book is brief enough to attract a very casual reader with some interest in the subject. Recommended.