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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Journalist Stephen J. Dubner and University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt are authors of the 2005 bestselling book, Freakonomics. The book promised to illustrate the “hidden side of everything,” and it very quickly became a bestseller.  It blended two worlds that seemed opposite: pop culture and economics.

In their book, Think Like a Freak, economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner give advice on how to master the economic way of thinking described in their previous bestsellers. To say it briefly, thinking like a Freak means being willing to think outside the box.

For those who want to think outside the box, Levitt and Dubner recommend using an intellectual toolkit with the following tools: knowing what to measure and how to measure in order to make a complex world more comprehensible; recognizing incentives as the driving force of modern life; realizing that correlation is not the equivalent of causality; acknowledging that the conventional wisdom is often erroneous; admitting that you sometimes do not know some things when solving problems.

The book offers advice which may be useful to those who want to make better decisions and achieve better results when dealing with both minor issues and major worldwide reforms. However, Levitt and Dubner point out that it is not a traditional self-help book. The kind of thinking which is described in the book is inspired by the economic approach.

The economic approach is both simpler and broader than merely focusing on the economy. It claims to be independent of ideology, and it uses data in order to understand how the world works, how incentives thrive, how resources are distributed, and what prevents people from getting those resources.

Levitt and Dubner emphasize that when people solve problems and make decisions, they have to rely on data and understand how the world really works in order to make the right decisions, and not be affected by prejudices and preconceptions.

The first three chapters of the book (“What Does it Mean to Think Like a Freak,” “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language” and “What is Your Problem?”) offer basic lessons in learning to think like a Freak in our everyday lives.

The next three chapters (“Like a Bad Dye Job, The Truth is in the Roots,” “Think Like a Child,” and “Like Giving Candy to a Baby”) demonstrate how to look for the root causes of problems, how to find good solutions, and how to deal with the fact that incentives motivate people the most in order to modify their behaviors.

The seventh chapter discusses the similarities between King Solomon and David Lee Roth. King Solomon was going to split a baby into two halves in order to resolve an issue between two women arguing about who the mother was. The rock star David Lee Roth insisted in his contract that there would be no brown M&Ms in his dressing rooms while on tour. If brown M&Ms were in the candy bowl in the dressing room, then it most likely meant the concert hall leaders did not read the contract carefully, including its part about required safety and equipment needs. Therefore, safety conditions and equipment would have to be checked again.

In chapter eight, Dubner and Levitt give advice on “How to Persuade People Who Don’t Want to Be Persuaded,” and, in chapter nine, they discuss an “Upside of Quitting.”

The principal messages of the book can also be categorized and described as follows:

  1. Learn to ask the right questions and look for the real root cause of a problem.

People should not be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Admitting one’s ignorance is important for learning. People should practice reframing questions. If a person asks the wrong question, then he or she almost certainly will get the wrong answer.

When dealing with a problem, one needs to make himself or herself aware of the real root cause of the problem, not just the symptoms. The real cause of the problem might be very different from what people commonly assume.

  1. Define differently problems that seem to be impossible to solve.

When solutions to a problem yield unsatisfactory results, it is essential to redefine the problem itself. For example, in 2000, Takeru Kobayashi found a way to win the Coney Island hot-dog-eating championship in Brooklyn, New York by using an unconventional approach.

  1. Think like a kid.

The worst trait of adults, particularly intelligent adults, is that they expect the world to behave in accordance with their beliefs, which is why it might be beneficial for adults to learn how to think like a kid.

When compared to adults, children are more likely to concentrate on small, resolvable problems instead of taking on very difficult and complex issues. Small questions are typically less frequently asked and examined. Just like children, adults should learn to tackle small problems, not huge ones.

A child’s mind operates without a lifetime’s understanding of how things work. Alex Stone, the professional magician, says that this is the reason why children can figure out magic tricks much better than adults can. For example, many times adults spend the whole trick thinking how to outsmart the magician. So that, afterwards, they are astonished to find out that they were misled by a simple sleight-of-hand performance. Yet, a child may simply notice that the magician had two cards while pretending to have one.

  1. Put aside your moral compass.

The three most difficult words for people to say are “I don’t know.” Many people prefer to form a conclusion as quickly as possible instead of admitting that they are ignorant about a topic. People’s desire to be self-righteous can turn discussions on such topics as global climate change and gun control into emotional yelling contests. In order to be more rational, it might be wise sometimes to put aside one’s values and viewpoints.

A moral compass can make people believe that there is a clear dividing line between right and wrong (whereas frequently there is no such clear line); that all the answers are obvious (whereas most of the time they are not), and that people already know everything they need to know about a topic so that there is no need for them to learn more.

  1. Trick liars so that they expose themselves.

Anticipation of an opponent’s next move might reveal liars, as well as people who do not follow through. For example, Van Halen used the following technique. When a city was added to the band’s tour, the venue would be given a contract with more than 50 pages of text describing technical and security requirements as well as accommodation preferences. In the contract, it was requested that there would be no brown M&Ms in a candy bowl.

If the band arrived at the venue and found brown M&Ms in their bowl of M&Ms, then they would know that the venue owner had not taken the requirements seriously. They would then require reviewing the entire stage setup because failure to comply with safety requirements might also have taken place.

  1. Frame the relationship differently in order to get what you want.

To get others to do what you want, you should change a confrontational relationship into a cooperative relationship.

For example, Brian Mullaney changed the way he was collecting donations for his charity Smile Tran, devoted to repairing poor children’s cleft lips worldwide. Originally, he used to mail 18 letters per year to donors. In his letters he was asking for donations. Then he decided to change the tone of his letter from a “shaming” tone to a “we are in this together” tone. As a result, total donations increased by 46 percent.

  1. In order to persuade stubborn people, acknowledge the weaknesses of your argument and the strengths of their argument.

Sometimes, the best tactic to address a disagreement with someone is to let it go and move on. However, if you think that you must win an argument, then you should set aside your ego and calmly admit the strengths of your opponent’s position and the weaknesses of your own position.

  1. Recognize that self-interest rules humankind

Incentives are the driving force of modern life. If you want to understand the world, you have to take into consideration people’s incentives and remember that, where there is a system, people will be attempting to game the system. For example, when politicians in Atlanta wanted to host the Olympic Games, they were incentivized to show that the crime rate in Atlanta was going down. However, when the police want more funding, they will credibly argue that the crime rate is going up.

  1. Appreciate the positive aspects of quitting.

People are taught to associate quitting with failure. However, there are many situations when a person can benefit from being resilient. Sometimes, the person might be happier by letting go of something that he or she has invested a huge amount of time and effort into.

Instead of focusing on the costs of quitting, such as the amount of time, energy and money already spent on something, one should evaluate the opportunity cost, which can include the amount of time, energy or money spent doing one thing while it could be used for doing something else. If the opportunity cost exceeds the sunk cost, then it may be time to quit what you are doing and move to a different project or activity.

Levitt and Dubner emphasize that people have to rely on data and avoid prejudices and preconceptions in order to solve problems and make the right decisions. They refer to this approach as the economic approach. I have to point out that more generally, this approach is thought to be the essence of the scientific method used in all social sciences and natural sciences. Social sciences and natural sciences are taught in schools in the US and worldwide, and any high school graduate should be fairly familiar with it.


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