BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Freak Think ...

I'm not exactly sure what I was thinking I was getting into when I ordered Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner's Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain, sure, I'd read the authors' Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics, but this was supposedly something different, something offering to “retrain” my brain … how fun would that be? I was even thinking this might be in the same territory as Chris Brogan's The Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth, if, perhaps, not so much focused on the entrepreneurial crowd. However, although it was an entertaining, interesting read, it really didn't significantly engage me … I ended up with a paltry 3 little slips of paper pointing me to “the good parts” in this, and all those in the first half … a good indication that I'd “given up” trying to extract info and just opted to enjoy the book. Not a bad thing, but it sucks as the basis of a useful review.

One thing that did stand out a bit, and that this was a bit self-referential. I don't recall from their earlier books if they wrote as much about themselves, but there are significant stories here based on their own experiences, at least a couple catching my attention. Since I flagged so few things to mention, I'm just going to wing it, and fall back on the crutch of listing the chapter headings to give you a sense of whatever arc the book has:
  1. What Does It Mean to Think Like a Freak?

  2. The Three Hardest Words in the English Language

  3. What's Your Problem?

  4. Like a Bad Dye Job, the Truth is in the Roots

  5. Think Like a Child

  6. Like Giving Candy to a Baby

  7. What Do King Solomon and David Lee Roth Have in Common?

  8. How to Persuade People Who Don't Want to Be Persuaded

  9. The Upside of Quitting

The book starts off with a little bit of snark, which I think is one of most telling points they cover … it's a follow-up question to a previous subject (they get a lot of mail, it seems): “Whatever happened to the carpal tunnel syndrome epidemic?” – their answer was “Once journalists stopped getting it, they stopped writing about it” – which is something to keep in mind whenever you see a “talking head” yakking about something … odds are very good that they're trying to score points with their particular “in group” and aren't “reporting” anything close to the “truth”! They point out that they can't possibly answer all the questions they get, so they opted to “write a book that can teach anyone to think like a Freak” (although, as suggested above, I'm not sure that this achieves that goal).

The first extensive “story” in here deals with soccer … which I know and appreciate slightly less than paint drying. The particular focus of this is something called a “penalty kick” (no, I don't care enough to Google that, really I don't) which I guess is a major factor in soccer. They note that roughly 75% of these are successful in scoring a goal (which I take it needs a few dozen extra “o”s in it to express the excitement of there actually being a score in the match). They also note that the strategy is generally to kick towards one of the upper corners of the goal, causing the “keeper” to have to decide where to make the big leap – left or right – with leaping to the kicker's left 57% of the time, and to the right 41% of the time. Given that 57+41=98, it suggests that soccer “keeper” vacates the center of the goal in all but 2% of penalty kicks. No doubt due to this math, a full 17% of kicks are aimed at the center, but one would expect that more would (at least initially), as it would be increasing a 75% rate of scoring to 98% … however, if your kick ended up as one of the 2%, you'd be in big trouble with the soccer-crazed fans/countries that watch this stuff (the authors suggest that you'd have to “move your family abroad to avoid assassination” … lovely people, these soccer fans). This is where the subject of incentives – the main theme here, and in the other books – comes up. If the kicker does the expected – aiming towards a corner – and is blocked, it's a great play by the keeper, but no shame (assuming the kick isn't wide of the goal) for the kicker. However, if the kicker opts for the higher odds of actually scoring – the “greater good”, he's risking a lot … and in 83% of the cases the kicker will go with the private benefit instead of the interest of team and/or country.

This is followed by a summation of the key concepts of the previous books:
  • Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life.

  • Knowing what to measure, and how to measure it, can make a complicated world less so.

  • The conventional wisdom is often wrong.

  • Correlation does not equal causality.

They point out that the biggest blocks to “thinking like a Freak” is not questioning one's own assorted biases, and “running with the herd” (see my comment about the MSM above). They draw on George Bernard Shaw when suggesting that most people really don't think much at all, so never get around to thinking about their and/or their associates' biases and reality assumptions. He's quoted as saying: “Few people think more than two or three times a year … I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.” The implication (given that the authors claim to try to think once or twice a week), is that most of the fascinating stuff in the previous books was simply due to having thought about it .. be it the data showing that children's car seats are a waste of time and money or that violent crime was reduced by making abortion easily available to inner-city women.

One of the personal stories here deals with a meeting of the cabinet of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron (following the release of SuperFreakonomics). A cabinet minister made an announcement that he classified as “a matter of the highest moral obligation”:
This made our ears prick up. One thing we've learned is that when people, especially politicians, start making decisions based on a reading of their moral compass, facts tend to be among the first casualties.
In a later chapter they expand on this:
When you are consumed with the rightness or wrongness of a given issue … it's easy to lose track of what the issue actually is. A moral compass can convince you that all the answers are obvious (even when they're not); that there is a bright line between right and wrong (when often there isn't); and, worst, that you are certain you already know everything you need to know about a subject so you stop trying to learn more.
There are some “tasty” stories here too … like the advertising one about a company that was certain that they knew that their TV ads produced sales at 4x the rate of print ads – but the only ran the ads on days like “black friday”, so the sales boost could well have been coming from “ambient” sales. This was compared to another story, about a company that buys newspaper ads in Sunday supplements every week in every market for the past 20 years, except for one market over one summer, when an intern screwed up placing the ads. What happened in that market, with no ads over those months? Well, first, nobody had ever bothered to check, and when they ran the numbers, it turned out that there had been no change, that the sales that came through came through equally when there were no ads as when the company was spending large sums on advertising. Did the company change? Nope. The corporate “common knowledge” trumped the actual numbers, and they're still throwing away that money today. This leads into “the three hardest words in the English language”, which are I don't know. If you think you know the answer, you're unlikely to bother to try an experiment … since you're sure you know.

Another “tasty” story here is based on wine snobbery. First a young member of an academic group set up an experiment to see how the expensive wines fared without them being in the context of being the expensive wines. He threw in a ringer, as he put one expensive wine in twice – same wine, just different decanters – and it came in both first and fourth, bracketing another expensive wine and a cheap wine. This, when revealed, created quite a stir. Inspired by this, one wine critic decided to run a series of experiments, culminating on a test with a major wine publication, for which he created a fake restaurant (with a very convincing web site), and a “reserve” wine list which featured bottles specifically chosen from the publication's own ratings – but only wines earning a “not recommended” rating. The result – the magazine presented him (or his fake restaurant) with an Award of Excellence … prompting him to opine: “My hypothesis was that the $250 fee was really the functional part of the application.”

There are lots of interesting tales told here, from looking at “competitive eating” to how a $15 pair of glasses could increase the learning ability of kids by as much as 50%, to how a scientist self-experimented to prove that bacteria cause ulcers, to a comparison of David Lee Roth's notorious “no brown M&Ms” rider to King Solomon's baby-splitting solution.

Speaking of M&Ms, one of the other “personal” stories here hinges on them. The daughter of one of the authors was having potty-training issues, and her father decided to make an offer, that if she went to the toilet, he'd give her a bag of M&Ms (I'm assuming that's one of the Halloween hand-out mini bags and not a full-size bag!). Here's how that ended up playing out, with a summation:
      How powerful are the right incentives? Within four days, a little girl went from potty-challenged to having the most finely tuned bladder in history. She simply figured out what it made sense to do given the incentives she faced. There was no fine print, no two-bag limit, not time-interval caveat. There was just a girl, a bag of candy, and a toilet.
      If there is one mantra a Freak lives by, it is this: people respond to incentives. As utterly obvious as this point may seem, we are amazed at how frequently people forget it, and it often leads to their undoing. Understanding the incentives of all the players in a given scenario is a fundamental step in solving any problem.
The last chapter is about “quitting” (which made me feel less guilty about trying to find stuff in the book as I went along), although they eventually fudge a bit on the definition to frame it as “letting go” … but with it still being “at the very core of thinking like a Freak”:
Letting go of the conventional wisdoms that torment us. Letting go of the artificial limis that hold us back – and of the fear of admitting that we don't know. Letting go of the habits of mind that tell us to kick into the corner of the goal even though we stand a better chance by going up the middle.
Think Like A Freak has only been out a year and a half at this point, but has moved into the used channels (I got an ex-library copy of the deckle-edge hardcover). Given the popularity of the authors' “Freak” books, I'd expect that this would be available in the real-world bookstores, and it appears to still be in print in both hardcover and paperback (and e- and audio- editions). The online big boys have these at over a third off of cover, if you want to go with “new” (the used guys have “very good” copies – which I believe is what I got – for just over a buck, before shipping). I enjoyed the read, found the info of interest, but never quite synced with the book … again, I'm not sure what sort of brain retraining I was expecting, but this – as useful as its various points might be – wasn't it. I would, nonetheless recommend it for being a “fun read”.

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Tags: book review

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