Think Like a Freak

Summary Written by Ryan Long
"Rather than trying and probably failing to answer most of the questions sent our way, we wondered if it might be better to write a book that can teach anyone to think like a Freak. What might that look like?"

- Think Like a Freak, page 2

The Big Idea

Redefine the problem

"Whatever problem you’re trying to solve, make sure you’re not just attacking the noisy part of the problem that happens to capture your attention. Before spending all your time and resources, it’s incredibly important to properly define the problem—or, better yet, redefine the problem."- Think Like a Freak, page 51-52

Dubner and Levitt tell us how competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi redefined his “problem” and changed competitive hot dog eating. Traditionally, competitive hot dog eaters ate bun and dog together like you might at a backyard barbecue. Kobayashi found removing the dog from the bun, breaking up the dog, and dunking the bun in water helped the parts to slide down more quickly and efficiently. He decided to out think his competitors and eat in a way they hadn’t considered.

Kobayashi changed the question from, “How do I eat more hot dogs?” to “How do I make hot dogs easier to eat?” and created a new technique. He ignored the previous record, which he believed was an artificial barrier. No one had ever done it the way he was going to do it, so the existing record had no bearing. In his very first hot dog eating competition, Kobayashi doubled the world record to 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes.

While Dubner, Levitt, and Kobayashi have the luxury of few limits in many cases, we don’t all get to live without rules, so to speak. Even so, we can all learn to redefine our problems and wipe away our barriers, even if it’s just for brainstorming purposes to get the problem solving juices flowing.

Insight #1

Start with a stone to move a mountain

"To think like a Freak means to think small, not big. Why? For starters, every big problem has been thought about endlessly by people much smarter than we are. The fact that it remains a problem means it is too damned hard to be cracked in full. Such problems are intractable, hopelessly complex, brimming with entrenched and misaligned incentives. Sure, there are some truly brilliant people out there and they probably should think big. For the rest of us, thinking big means you’ll spend a lot of time tilting at windmills."- Think Like a Freak, page 89

In chapter 5, “Think Like a Child”, Levitt and Dubner encourage readers to adopt three childlike behaviors: have fun, think small, and don’t fear the obvious. Spending time with three year olds reminds us that airplane noises make them eat with enthusiasm and children see things that adults look past. When children are at play or are being coached to do things, we instruct them to focus on one piece at a time—to think small about a task to get from one place to another.

Education reform is often a hot topic and a big dilemma to tackle. In “think like a Freak” fashion, Levitt and Dubner point out that the children are often overlooked when we are considering changes to education. According to the book, one in four children have poor vision and 60% of students that have trouble in the classroom also have trouble seeing. So, why not give them eyeglasses to see if learning improves? Three economists did just that in China and found that test scores went up dramatically for challenged learners that were given glasses as compared to the control group without corrective lenses. The authors are quick to point out that eyeglasses don’t solve all of the educational challenges we have, but this small thinking can make a huge dent in changing learning for the better. Here, we’re reminded not to look past obvious, simpler, and cheaper solutions.

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Insight #2

No one does something for nothing

"With any problem, it’s important to figure out which incentives will actually work, not just what your moral compass tells you should work. They key is to think less about the ideal behavior of imaginary people and more about the actual behavior of real people. Those real people are much more unpredictable."- Think Like a Freak, page 115

I work in a business where certain behavior is constantly reinforced by contests and incentives. We often assume that our people will respond to winning either money or a prize. But maybe we need to rethink our incentives and read the actions of our people to see what really drives them. The authors cite an experiment about electricity conservation. Psychologist Robert Cialdini found that people were more likely to conserve energy because placards told them that their neighbors were doing it. In this case, moral, social, and financial incentives lost to the herd mentality. “Everyone is doing it” was a far greater motivation than saving money, the environment, or just doing the right thing.

If you haven’t read any of the Freakanomics trilogy, don’t worry. You don’t need to read the other books for this to be fun, informative, and entertaining. I couldn’t include all the good stuff in this summary. I really wanted to tackle the idea of persuading people that don’t want to be persuaded but I thought I would leave that up to some of you. How will you persuade the strong willed? Channel your inner David Lee Roth? Decide if you should quit? Use incentives? Or hey, just in general, how will you start turning problems on their heads because you’ve learned to Think Like a Freak? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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Stephen J. Dubner

Stephen J. Dubner is an award-winning author and journalist who lives in New York City. In addition to Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, he is the author of Turbulent Souls (Choosing My Religion), Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper, and a children’s book, The Boy With Two Belly Buttons. He has written for publications including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Time, and his journalism has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting, The Best American Crime Writing, and elsewhere. He has taught English at Columbia University (while receiving an M.F.A. there), played in a rock band (which started at Appalachian State University, where he was an undergrad, and was later signed to Arista Records), and, as a writer, was first published at the age of 11, in Highlights for Children.

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