Think like a freak. How to think smarter about almost anything By Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner


Summarised by Paul Arnold  (Strategic Planner, Facilitator and Trainer)


To think like a freak you need to see things differently and not be clouded by societal or emotional pressures. The book suggests a number of techniques to help you see new angles (and hence solutions) on problems. These include: Be okay to say, “I don’t know”, Start asking different questions, Think like a child, Being prepared to quit, Dig deep into the underlying causes of an event, and Explore the incentives (and dis-incentives) that drive behaviour.


What does it mean to think like a freak? – The truth is solving problems is difficult (that’s why they are ‘problems’). Big problems have complex solutions, so often impossible to solve in one elegant, simple solution. You have to nibble away at parts of it.

Taking a penalty kick. – Analysis of World cup games shows that roughly 75% of penalty kicks are successful. The ball moves at 80mph so the keeper has to second-guess the kicker. If they dive the wrong way the odds increase to 90%. Statistically, the greatest chance lies at shooting directly at the goalie (keepers jump to the left 57% of the time and to the right 41% – i.e. 98% of the time they go either left or right), but only 17% aim at the centre. The reason is the ignominy of a failed shot (whilst a shot to the top corner was at least a brave attempt).

Thinking like a freak is to challenge and ignore conventions. It instead relies on data – and interpreting it as ‘cleanly’ as possible. The problem is most people have many unconscious biases, which means they interpret the data through the lens of their own beliefs (we tend to see what we believe rather than believe what we see). New information rarely makes us see things differently. Furthermore, we feel more comfortable ‘accepting’ the wisdom of the crowd, and fitting in, than daring to challenge the status quo on things. Finally emotion also gets in the way and clouds our rational thought. Thus we rarely think cleanly or freely. Thinking like a freak means doing just that.

The first two books on Freakonomics were based on a few simple principles:

  1. Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life (in that we will do things that we are rewarded for). If there is a problem (where for example people are doing the wrong thing), look at the underlying motivations in place (as sometimes there are unseen consequences of certain actions).
  2. Knowing what to measure (and when to measure it) can simplify a complex situation
  3. Conventional wisdom is often flawed – so don’t always follow ‘accepted wisdom’.
  4. Correlation ≠ Causation – Just because two events correlate, does not mean that one is the cause of the other.

    Married people are more likely to be happier. However, it is wrong to assume that it was marriage that caused the happiness. For example looking at other data shows that happy people are more likely to get married (after all, who wants to marry a grumpy person?)

There are some key steps to think like a freak:

1) Be okay to say “I don’t know”

2) Start asking different questions

3) Think like a child

4) Have fun

5) Think small

6) Don’t be afraid of the obvious

7) Dig deep to find the underlying causes

8) Investigate the incentives (and dis-incentives) that are in play

9) Be okay with failing/quitting

Be okay to say, “I don’t know” – Until you can admit that you don’t know, you can’t be open to learn the stuff you need to know (the trouble is culturally it’s unacceptable to admit to not knowing). Facts sit above beliefs which sit above opinion. Facts are irrefutable. Beliefs are (in theory) formed from facts – but you can chose some facts and ignore others to form beliefs, and opinions may be based (loosely) on very few (if any) facts. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not to their own facts. Thus when we base our beliefs and opinions on only a few facts we can jump to false conclusions. Surprisingly, it is often difficult to convince a person by offering then more facts to counter their belief or opinion.

Only 20% of Indonesians, 11% of Kuwaitis and 4% of Pakistanis believe that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks.

Often things are more complex and there is rarely all the information necessary to make a perfectly informed decision. Furthermore the ability to predict the future is even more difficult (yet there are plenty of ‘pundits’ out there prepared to spin their view of the future)!

Philip Tetlock enlisted 300 experts and asked them to make lots of predictions over a 20- year period. On analysis of their predictions versus what actually happened, they were not much better than dart throwing monkeys! These experts tend to be too dogmatic because they believe in their own ‘knowledge & expertise’ – and hence were not prepared to accept they do not know!

It’s not just experts – we all over-estimate our abilities (80% of people think their driving skills are better than average). Just because we are good at one thing does not mean we are good at other things.

One of the best ways to solve a problem is to put away your moral compass (as ‘rightness and wrongness’ cloud judgment).

There are 38,000 suicides in USA every year – more than 2x the number of murders. It’s one of the top ten causes of death yet is rarely talked about because it is too sensitive a subject. Analysing the data shows suicide is more prevalent in people with a better quality of life (as got nothing else to blame – people in more difficult circumstances have something to focus on for their cause of depression. For example, suicide rates rise amongst blind people who have had their sight restored.

One of the keys to learning is feedback. We try things. It does not work, so we try something different. However complex problems we cannot learn as much from this approach. So you need to create experiments (as can control variables and hence reduce complexity). Inherent in the setting up of experiments is the recognition of ‘not knowing’. Occasionally life throws up some natural experiments (such as the different laws on abortion in different states across America has allowed people to analyse some social issues).

Start asking different questions – If you ask the wrong question, you get the wrong answer. To think like a freak requires you to often ask a different question. Instead we tend to ‘go with the flow’ and ask the same questions media and society have always asked.

Furthermore we can focus on the wrong area (e.g. an area that bothers us). So be careful you are not just tackling the ‘noisy’ part of the problem.

In education, there is a lot of investigation into what leads to great teaching – be it class size, teacher skills, etc. However, evidence suggests that teacher skill has less influence on a student’s learning than what they have learned from their parents.

Kobayashi became the world champion of speed eating by looking at the problem from a new angle and breaking the paradigms of conventional eating. Rather than seeing it as eating food in the conventional way, he saw it as a sport. He experimented with different techniques, to work out what was faster, meticulously recording his results. He would wet the bread to help it slide down faster and do a jiggle and dance to help the food go down. He also was not limited by the past world record. In the end he smashed the record by eating 53 hot dogs in 12 minutes (the record was 25).

Dig deep to find the underlying causes – It takes an original thinker to look at an old problem and find a new angle. That’s because we are pre-conditioned to jump towards the most common angles/solutions that have been previously suggested (we can’t seem to get them out of the mind to think of new ones cf Don’t think of an elephant).

One of the ways to help is to dig beyond the presenting symptoms of an issue and go further upstream to find the underlying causes.

In Freakonomics, the authors looked at the rise in US gun crime. Only when they investigated into the underlying causes did they discover that one of contributing factors was the legalisation of abortion in the 1970s (as before then, too many unwanted kids roamed the streets with little parental guidance).

In Germany, different areas have prospered better than others. This traces back to 1517, and the establishment of the Protestant Reform movement under Martin Luther. Protestants really do have a greater work ethic than Catholics. Since regions tend to either be Catholic or Protestants, there are regional differences in wealth.

The Medical and Pharmaceutical industry were deeply resistant to the idea put forward by Barry Marshall & Robin Warren that a gastric ulcer could be solved by antibiotics (as common knowledge at the time thought no bacteria – H.pyroli to be precise – could live in such an acidic environment as the stomach).

Research found that educational standards were affected by eyesight. The World Bank helped fund sight tests and glasses in Gansu (a poor and remote province in China). They discovered only 59% of those who needed glasses had any. In tests, they found the group that was given $15 glasses increased their test scores by 25-50%.

Think like a child – Kids have an openness and curiosity that we lose as we get older. Anything is possible. They are not limited by past dogma and culture. They are prepared to ask the questions and suggest solutions adults unconsciously self-censor.

Whilst many a ‘child-like’ idea may be wrong, it may lead to a new angle of approach. The authors suggest never to react too quickly to an idea (pro or against) until at least 24 hours has passed.

One of the ways to think like a freak is to think small not big. Too many problems are too massive and complex to try to tackle all of it. Instead its best to take one small part of it and just focus on addressing that. Sir Isaac Newton once wrote, “Tis much better to do a little with certainty and leave the rest for others that come after.” Thus it’s better to ask small questions as often they are less asked.

Don’t be afraid of the obvious – Sometimes the right answers are staring us in the face. We often need a naive outsider to spot what has become invisible to us. Likewise, do not be afraid to ask the stupid questions (“Why?” can often reveal a lot of underlying paradigms). If we stop seeing the complexity of things, but instead see the simplicity of things, it can open up new avenues of thinking.

When Marshall was exploring gastric ulcers, he saw the body as just another machine (his father was an engineer). Thus he saw the problem through the eyes of simplicity rather than complexity.

Have fun – Like a child, freaks enjoy the puzzle of solving a problem. They see learning as fun and are constantly excited by new things. Being playful in these areas is critical to keep ourselves open. Being too serious can constrain creativity (as become very left brain focused).

Many people like to gamble. We all know the odds are against you. How about if the ‘winner’ was charities and not some organisation? Hence the birth of the idea ‘Spin-for-Good’. If one were too serious on how to raise funds, such an idea would never have been allowed to be voiced.

Investigate the incentives (and dis-incentives) that are in play – A freak lives by the mantra ‘People respond to incentives’. Thus understanding the incentives (and dis- incentives) currently in play that leads to the current behaviour (and hence the incentives required to lead to a new form of behaviour) is critical to solving many problems.

There are different types of incentives: financial, social, moral, legal, etc. To become a great freak you need to become an expert in incentives. These differ for people, times and situations. To do this, you need to ‘climb inside their heads’ to understand what is important for them (to identify the point of leverage). There is often little point asking them outright as often not say (or not know). In economics it’s called ‘declared preferences’ and ‘revealed preferences.’ So don’t listen to what they say – instead observe their actions.

The average American weighs 25lbs more than a generation ago. Food on average is cheaper now than before (In 1971 the US spent 13.4% of disposable income on food in 2014 it was 6.5%). Conversely, not all foods are cheaper – the healthier foods like fruit and vegetables have risen in price (a pure high nutrition diet can cost up to 10x as much as a junk diet).

When given four reasons on why they should conserve energy (environmental, societal, financial, or ‘herd’ instinct), everyone voted in a rational way. However, when Cialdini gave them a postcard with one of these four claims on, they saw a drop in power usage primarily in the houses that were told ‘Join your neighbours in conserving energy – 77% of local residents often use fans instead of air conditioning’.

Smile train, a charity to help perform cataract operations in the third world looked at the key reasons people give to charity. They uncovered that people feel ‘bullied’ into giving under social pressure. From this Brian Mullaney developed his ‘Once-and-done’ mailing strategy – i.e. give to us once and then you are done – we will not pester you ever again. Interestingly, on the bottom of the form was an ‘opt in’ (i.e. can we contact you again?) – Only 1/3rd opted out of any future communications.

Whenever you interact with anyone there is one of five levels of relationship:

  1. Transactional relationships (i.e. buy & sell; give vs receive)
  2. ‘Us’ versus ‘them’ relationships – e.g. some competitive stance is taken such as in games, politics, war etc.
  3. ‘Loved one’ relationships – e.g. family and friends
  4. Collaborative relationships-i.e. How we work together with team mates in a game or work type situation
  5. Authority relationships – i.e. boss vs employee; Teacher vs student etc.

Everything is fine when we all know the relationship, but when we cross it, we can get into trouble (e.g. ‘Authority’ mixing with ‘Loved one’). But sometimes, shifting to a new level can lead to a breakthrough (cf The Ping-Pong diplomacy between US and China in the 70’s where the US Ping-Pong team were invited to play in China, thus allowing diplomatic discussions to open up thereafter).

Zappos changed their relationship from a transactional one to a ‘loved one’. There is no script, no time limit set. They offer a 365-day return policy (with shipping paid). They are authorised to settle problems without referencing to a supervisor. In a job that pays just $11 an hour, they had over 250,000 applications for just 250 jobs (loyalty rate is higher than other call centres).

You must also be aware of the ‘unexpected consequences’ of some incentives.

In their attempt to reduce pollution, Mexico City actually raised it! By only allowing odd or even number plates to drive into the city on different days, commuter bought an extra car to get around the ban (and these cars were usually older and more polluting).

The UN, in their attempt to curtail HFC-23 (a super greenhouse gas – a bi product from refrigeration) started to incentivise the destroying of it. The trouble was this led to people actively developing HFC-23 just to cash in! (Up to $20m a year). When the UN realised this, they stopped the incentive. The result – those producing it let the HFC-23 out into the environment – thus creating more pollution than the initiative saved! The ‘cobra effect’ as it is called, has also been found with feral pigs in Georgia, and rats in South Africa.

In designing the right incentives, there are 6 guidelines:

  1. Find out what people really care about
  2. Incentivise them on what is valuable to them (and relatively cheap for you to supply)
  3. Look at the behaviour generated by the incentive. Change if need to.
  4. Create incentives that change the relationship from adversarial to co-operative.
  5. Don’t think people will do ‘the right thing’
  6. Some people will always try to ‘game’ the system

A person who is lying or cheating will respond differently to an incentive.

Two women came before King Solomon both claiming to be the mother of a child. Solomon ruled that the living child be cut in half and given to both. The first woman pleaded not to hurt the child. The second acceded to the King’s decision. The King now knew who was the real mother.

Thus we can use incentives to ‘weed’ people out. An example is to make applications for companies particularly onerous to ‘weed’ out the chancers.

When Van Halen went on tour one of the ‘diva’ type instructions given was to have a bowl of M&M’s in their room but NO brown ones! It was not vanity but a hidden test. The reason was they had incredibly complex set designs that needed careful scrutiny to ensure everything was safe and worked efficiently. This meant at each venue, a detailed 53-page instruction manual was issued. Buried deep in there was the clause about the M&M’s. When they arrived on set, they checked the M&M’s as a sign that the local crews have followed their instructions to the letter.

Zappo’s offer people a $2000 bonus to quit after their first few weeks. Those who ‘care’ more about the money and less about the job will weed themselves out earlier. Only 1% accepts ‘The offer’.

Those emails from Nigeria asking you to look after $10m always seem so badly written no- one would fool for them. But actually they are deliberately written like that as they help weed out the cynical, leaving just the gullible to follow through with (otherwise these ‘blanket emails’ would swamp the fraudsters as they so not have enough manpower to deal with everyone).

In SuperFreakonomics the authors talked about having identified some key characteristic behaviours of potential terrorists. One of the facts they revealed was that they never bought life insurance from a bank. At the time the authors were condemned in the press for revealing these facts. But in reality it was a deliberate ploy to further weed out the terrorists (as they would now deliberately take out insurance to avoid the gaze of the Police). In fact very few people buy insurance from banks.

Be okay with failing/quitting – Sometimes it is better to cut your losses and move on (rather than the Churchillian doggedness of “never, never, never”). Sunk costs often keep us ‘in the game’ – the time and money invested in a project makes people want to get a return from it (cf the Concorde fallacy). However people forget about the unforeseen consequences of such actions. We tend to be blind to the lost opportunity costs – i.e. what else we could be doing with that money or time (since both are finite resources).

Thus there are social, emotional and psychological pressures that are keeping us doing the wrong thing. Here are some ways to help make ‘The Big Quit’:

  1. Change your mindset from ‘Quitting is failing’ to ‘Quitting is success’. We should push to ‘fail fast – hence learn fast’. That way we save a lot of money. In this way it reframes failure as a victory (as allows you to quickly move on).
  2. Celebrate the ‘closing down’ of a project. Ensure there is a culture that celebrates letting go. ’Demonising quitting’ will make people avoid it at all costs.

    A huge multinational retail chain was planning to open its first store in China. When all the senior leaders were asked to rate the likelihood of success that the store would open on time they all gave it a green light. However, when all employees were offered to chance to register an anonymous vote 92% said it would fail to hit the date (which in reality it did miss!)

    On January 28th 1986, NASA planned to launch the space shuttle Challenger. The launch had been delayed a number of times which was bringing pressure onto all parties. Unfortunately the weather took a turn for the worse, being unusually cold for Florida (with temperatures predicted overnight to drop as low as 18°). The night before the launch, NASA held a long telecom with the engineers from Morton Thiokol, the people who built the rocket motors. MT recommended to postpone the launch again as the ‘O’ rings (that keep hot gasses escaping the shuttle boosters) had never been subjected to such low temperatures (the lowest temperature it had been tested at was 53°). On the call NASA pushed back. The senior leaders at MT left the call for 30 minutes and came back and agreed to the launch. The next day, just 73 seconds into the flight, Challenger exploded, killing everyone on board.

  3. Hold a ‘Pre-mortem’ (Developed by Gary Klein) – Hindsight is a wonderful thing. So get the team together and tell them to imagine the project (that is yet to be launched) has failed. Then explore all the reasons that could have caused the failure of the project. Ideally make the answers all be anonymous – this helps flush out the flaws and doubts that culturally are rarely allowed to be expressed publicly.
  4. Realise that quitting has real physical and psychological benefits. Whenever you have quit something in the past, you feel a real sense of relief. Research by Wrosch has shown that people have less depressive symptoms, lower cortisol levels and lower levels of systemic inflammation.

    Freakonomics set up flipping a coin website experiment where people would hand over decisions in life to the flip of a coin (e.g. Should I leave my partner? Should I date my boss? Should I leave my job? etc). 40% of coin flips people followed through on. It seems many people find making decisions difficult and want other people to make them of their behalf.

Part of the problem is people fear the consequences of making the (wrong) decision. This tends to lead people to adopt the status-quo bias – i.e. staying put and NOT making a decision.

How to persuade people who do not want to be persuaded – The trouble with thinking like a freak is how to convince people later on of your point of view. Typically it will cut across what they already believe so will be resistant to your new ideas. So how do you persuade a person who does not want to be persuaded? The short answer is you can’t.

Facts alone rarely converts (as data is always cut and can be shaped to suit either person’s argument).

The more convinced you are of something, the less easy it is to shift (especially if you are identified closely with that position).

Ironically, people who have little facts to back up their beliefs can be equally hard to convince.

Need to accept that people’s opinions are often less based on fact than on ideology and herd thinking.

Furthermore, people are unconscious of the biases that drive them.

It seems the better way is not to attack the belief/attitude/opinion head on but instead ‘nudge’ behaviour via other strategies (cf the fly on the urinals).

Some suggestions:

  1. Remember it’s all about them – No matter how good your argument is, it’s about what

    they believe first and foremost. So need to start with acknowledging their point of view. Also acknowledge the strength of their argument (i.e. don’t make them look like a fool).

  2. Don’t pretend your argument is flawless – People will not believe it is so perfect! As soon as they find a hole in your argument they will discount the whole thing. Better for you to highlight it as this then takes the ‘wind out of the sails’ on that issue.
  3. Keep the insults to yourself – Personal attacks never ever help. You are dealing with an ego not a Spock like character. Criticising a person weighs heavier on the brain than any positive comments. Net: be careful not to attack their opinion, but instead focus on your own pov.
  4. Tell stories – People hear and take-in ‘facts’ wrapped in story that they normally reject. Stories capture our attention, entertain and create a deep emotional resonance. By story, the authors do not mean personal anecdote (as do not see these as convincing – “The plural of anecdotes is not data”). Instead find the story in the data.

5. Follow the data chain to highlight the underlying causes and the resultant consequences.

Steve Epstein, a lawyer at the US Department of Defence had to brief various government departments on the sorts of things employees were not allowed to do. He realised this could be a very dry presentation, so instead he created a storybook called ‘The Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure’ where he cataloged epic screw-ups (e.g. a military officer who faked his death to end an affair). This has become one of the most celebrated US government publications of all time.

Only 14% of Americans can recall all Ten Commandments. 71% could name only one of them. However, the stories (parables) in the bible people do remember.


This is an easy and quick book to read with lots of interesting anecdotes (although very few are as surprising as in their first two books). Its lessons about how to think like a freak are the many of the same ones we know about creativity and general problem solving.

Net: Some good useful content but nothing like as good as their first two books.



About slooowdown

Consultant in the fields of Relationships and Change
This entry was posted in Business strategy, Creativity, Decision making, Leadership. Bookmark the permalink.

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