Book Review: “Think Like A Freak” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

I utterly enjoyed the previous two books by the “Freak” economists. Click Super Freakonomic Review here.

In this book, the authors talked about several subjects:
1. The three hardest words in English: “I don’t know.” We don’t do enough experimentation because of tradition and lack of expertise. Perhaps, we should learn from children who are more likely to say “I don’t know.”

2. What’s your problem? Define or re-define the problem you’re trying to solve. Here’s a how a young Japanese man figured out how to be a hot-dog eating champion by studying how best sequence to swallow the hot dogs, beating the record by 2x (50 vs. 25 1/8). You can see how he broke his own record at 69. Instead of asking “How do eat more hot dogs?”, he asked “How do I make hot dogs easier to eat?” He sees it as a sport so he experimented with ways to improve the ease of eating (like wetting the bun first) and he didn’t take the record as the ultimate limit.

3. Like a Bad Dye Job, the truth is in the roots. Finding root cause is hard work that people tend to shy away like why legalized abortion reduces the crime rate and why Protestants make 1% more money than Catholics – better work ethics established centuries ago? and why American blacks are 50% more likely than American whites to have hypertension – gene selection during slave trades to avoid dying during the long journey to America. Also Robin Warren found that H Pylori bacteria contributed to ulcer; he proved it by injecting bacteria into himself.

4. Think Like a Child: To solve problem as a child, think small. For example, giving free glasses to a poor Chinese village raise their learning by 25~50%. Also, don’t be afraid of obvious like in the case of Barry Marshall’s discovery of the H Pylori bacteria’s causing ulcer. Finally, have fun! Like tying lottery concept in a savings account to entice more savings.

5. Like Giving Candy to a Baby: People responds to incentives. Giving a baby candy for going to the toilet could invite a different set of behavior. We tend to follow the herd (“join the neighbor”) in doing something than for the goodness (like environmental issues). Giving people to choice to stop charity solicitation works magic (as in Smile Train example) and can be explained by three factors: novelty, candor, and control. Changing the framework of relationship can work magic: like China’s Ping Pong diplomacy. Why incentives fail? 1. getting out-smarted by people gaming the system, 2. people may not respond as you might expect, 3. rule changes, behavior changes too. To design the right set of incentives: 1. figure out what people really care about, not what they say they care about, 2. incentize with something valuable to them but cheap to you, 3. heed people’s response. If unexpected, try something different, 4. switch the frame from adversarial to collaborative if possible. 5. people may not always do the “right” thing as you perceived. 6. know that some people will game the system.

6. How Do King Solomon and David Lee Roth Have in Common? They all used some sorts of game theory like a “self-weeding garden.” King Solomon got the baby to the right mother in a dispute. David Lee Roth put in a less-than-obvious clause (no brown M&M’s) at the end of the concert rider to ensure the local promoters follow the guidelines to the letter. More examples like Zappo’s paying trainees $2000 to quit before starting and ancient “ordeal” where people in the “suit” would be subjected to a torture by God if lied. The last example is about the Nigerian email scam to get you to pay the scammer a large sum of money upfront to claim the award money. Why keep using the “Nigerian” story, because it screens out the “gullible” victims. The same tactic can be used to catch the terror lists.”

7. How to Persuade People Who Don’t Want to be Persuaded. Tips: 1) Don’t pretend your argument is perfect. 2) Acknowledge the strengths of your opponent’s arguments. 3) Keep the insults to yourself. 4) Why you should tell stories (not anecdotes).

8. The Upside of Quitting: Why people don’t quit: 1) Churchill’s “never quit” speech (being brain-washed) 2) notion of sunk costs (Concorde example) 3) focus on concrete costs, not opportunity costs. Celebrate failures instead of demonize failures which cause people to avoid trying anything. Practice “premortem” (find out what might go wrong before it’s too late.) with anonymity to encourage participation. The two authors gave their own stories how they quit their dream jobs (golf pro, and band) to start writing books.