Think Like a Freak

“The key to learning is feedback. It is nearly impossible to learn anything without it.”  – Steven D. Levitt

Lessons learnt: Sometimes say “I don’t know”. Question if you are asking the right question. Stop once every while… just to think.

After the success of Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner are back for their third book. In Think Like a Freak, they take a meta-look at how to think, how we conceive the world around us, and how to do a better job at this. Still loaded with stories, this book takes a more theoretical approach than the last two. For anyone who is questioning how to think like a freak (or just how to think smarter) this is your book. But also if you are just here for the great examples, some applied psychology or want to know what King Solomon and David Lee Roth have in common, be sure to give this book a try.

In the very first chapter, the authors explain how they have written (Super) Freakonomics. They had four main ideas. Four ideas that may sound very simple, but ideas that many of us neglect to consider (ever):

  1. Incentives are the cornerstone 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

On a practical level, they do the following things. 1) Use data, it is much better than gut feelings (but see Blink). 2) Admit that you do not know… but that you can go and find it out. 3) Ask the right question… and then do step 2 again. In relation to questions, they propose us to ask small questions. You can answer these with much more precision, there are less intervening/complicating factors, and it is much easier to understand. Then when you are asking the question, do not be afraid to ask about something obvious – maybe you will find out that the real answer is not that obvious after all.

Thinking like a freak alas, also involves some basic (behavioural) economic understanding. This is that people are driven by incentives. Incentives can be money, but often do not need to be. An incentive is something that matters to a person, so go ahead and place yourself in their shoes and think what incentive would motivate them. Sometimes these incentives are not what we say they are (e.g. I care about global warming and will turn the heat down; declared preference), but turn out to be something else (e.g. I want to be a better energy saver than my neighbours; revealed preference). The authors state that it is crucial to first think about what the revealed preference is. Only then can you use incentives to your advantage.

“Would a diet high in omega-3 lead to world peace?” -Steven D. Levitt

The last two chapters discuss 1) persuasion and 2) the upside of quitting. Both take on interesting view on the respective subjects and give another great illustration of how a freak thinks. After reading the book you may wonder where the time has gone. Although you probably have learned a lot, it feels nothing like a boring textbook. In their third book, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner have succeeded in writing another thought-provoking classic. Thinking Like a Freak may not be for everyone, but if anything has caught your attention, be sure to read it when convenient!