Book Summary and Analysis |

Popular Psychology, Personal Growth and Self-Help



A Summary and Critique of

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s

Think Like a Freak

by I.K. Mullins

Copyright©2015 I.K. Mullins. All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or retransmitted in any form or by any means without the written permission of the author.

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Levitt and Dubner’s book aims to teach readers how to “think like a Freak.”  Their book encourages readers to reconsider ordinary, everyday ways of thinking, as well as conventional problem-solving methods. Using numerous examples, Levitt and Dubner tell readers how to think like a Freak: disregard conventional wisdom; concentrate your attention on data; do not confuse causality with correlation (for example, married people might be happier, because no one wants to marry a moaner); verify theories with experiments; and recognize that self-interest determines human behavior.

In some examples provided in the book, thinking like a Freak stands for thinking outside the box, and many readers already know how to do that. Some of the advice in the book also refers readers to well-known common sense. For example, readers are told to look for the root cause of a problem, solve small problems instead of large problems, stop doing things they pretend to enjoy, learn to quit when bad decisions make us feel miserable. In Dubner and Levitt’s book, this common-sense approach is illustrated with unusual stories.

The Freakonomics approach works in this new book when the authors refer to some interesting recent research and build a captivating story around it. One great example deals with a Nigerian email scam. This email scam tells you that a huge amount of money needs to be transferred out of Nigeria, and that you will get a big portion of it if you allow the email senders to use your bank account as a temporary deposit point. Obviously, the mention of Nigeria is sufficient to alert almost everyone that the email is a con. Yet, the con artists send this email to millions of people.

The computer scientist Cormac Herley’s research demonstrates that there is a reason why the con artists specify Nigeria in their email. It does not really cost much to send out millions of emails. By mentioning Nigeria, the con artists are able to discover the extremely small number of people who still do not get suspicious when reading about it. Therefore, people who respond to the email have already indicated to the con artists that they are completely gullible.

In their discussion of the US educational system and the role of parents, the authors of Think Like a Freak could have provided more information that supports their argument about the importance of parenting. For example, Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Lubienski, professors at University of Illinois, wrote a book: The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, that describes the results of their research in this area. In their book, the Lubienskis point out that students at expensive private schools usually do well because of their wealthy backgrounds. Wealthy parents, who are usually more well educated, can help their children with studies or hire tutors.

However, public schools actually offer better education when it comes to math, and their teachers are typically introduced to the newest instructional methods. In other words, it turns out that public schools can actually provide education of better quality than expensive private schools.

In their book, Levitt and Dubner offer advice on how to deal with personal problems, as well as with major global ones. They point out that most people look for evidence, which confirms what they already think, instead of searching for new information that would provide them with a better understanding of reality. People should be open to evidence that might seem counterintuitive, obvious, or even childish.

Levitt and Dubner also analyze the advantages and shortcomings of incentives and the effects of the subtle power of “herd thinking.” I would like to add that understanding different ways of dealing with other people’s biases and “herd thinking” could be beneficial for those who wish to advance their careers.

People who think unconventionally should learn to take advantage of other people’s conventional wisdom and stereotypes. In other words, one might consider sometimes “going with the flow” by using superficial solutions to address other people’s stereotypes and biases.

For example, you should consider making your name shorter or using a nickname. Studies conducted by TheLadders, a website for job-seekers, indicate that there is a connection between the length of a person’s name and the person’s salary: the shorter the name, the greater the salary. After analyzing approximately 6 million names by career, TheLadders concluded that every extra letter in a person’s first name correlates with a $3,600 decrease in an annual salary.

Moreover, if you want to succeed, you might consider wearing heels. Studies actually show that taller people make more money. Common wisdom has it that taller people are more competent than short people or people of average height. This is why it is not unusual that tall people receive preferential treatment.

Levitt and Dubner recommend that readers learn to quit when it is the right time. However, the authors of Think Like a Freak do not discuss the conditions that might indicate a necessity for quitting one’s job. To fill this gap, we provide some recommendations here. You should consider quitting your job if any of the conditions listed below apply to your current job, and you do have other job prospects:

  • You are not learning anything new at your job.
  • You have become overqualified for your job.
  • Your work environment is not suited to your personality and values.
  • Your job-related stress negatively affects your health.
  • Your personal life suffers because of your job.
  • Your job responsibilities are growing, but your compensation is not.
  • You have a difficult or unethical boss.
  • You do not like the job of the supervisor of your boss. That is, your current career path does not appeal to you.
  • You are seriously considering a different career path altogether.
  • The company you work for goes through some serious hardships.

And the rule of thumb is that if you wake up in the morning and you dread getting out of bed to go about your day, then it is definitely time to assess your work and your personal life and figure out if you need to quit anything or make any less drastic changes.

Levitt and Dubner hope that by thinking “a bit differently, a bid harder, a bit more freely,” readers will be able “to go out and right some wrong, to ease some burden.” A new way to solve problems necessitates retraining your brain a little, and learning to avoid various preconceptions and biases.

Overall, Levitt and Dubner’s book can be recommended as a guide to logical and inventive problem solving for anyone who wishes to learn how to make better decisions. Whereas the problem-solving techniques proposed by Levitt and Dubner cannot be called an innovative breakthrough, they provide readers with opportunities to look at critical thinking and the scientific method from different angles.



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Gneezy, Uri, Meier , Stephan, Rey-Biel, Pedro. “When and Why Incentives (Don’t) Work to Modify Behavior,” Journal of Economic Perspectives: Vol. 25 No. 4 (Fall 2011). Pages 191–210

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Holiday, Ryan. 2013. Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. Portfolio.

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Levitt, Steven D., Dubner, Stephen J. 2009. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. Harper Perennial.

Levitt, Steven D., Dubner, Stephen J. 2014. Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain. William Morrow.

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Weisberg, Robert. 2006. Creativity: Understanding Innovation in Problem Solving, Science, Invention, and the Arts. Wiley.

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