What Does It Mean to Think Like a Freak?
After writing Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, we started to hear from readers with all sorts of questions. Is a college degree still “worth it”? (Short answer: yes; long answer: also yes.) Is it a good idea to pass along a family business to the next generation? (Sure, if your goal is to kill off the business— for the data show it’s generally better to bring in an outside manager.*) Whatever happened to the carpal tunnel syndrome epidemic? (Once journalists stopped getting it, they stopped writing about it— but the problem persists, especially among blue- collar workers.)
Some questions were existential: What makes people truly happy? Is income inequality as dangerous as it seems? Would a diet high in omega- 3 lead to world peace?
People wanted to know the pros and cons of: autonomous vehicles, breast- feeding, chemotherapy, estate taxes, fracking, lotteries, “medicinal prayer,” online dating, patent reform, rhino poaching, using an iron off the tee, and virtual currencies. One minute we’d get an e- mail asking us to “solve the obesity epidemic” and then, five minutes later, one urging us to “wipe out famine, right now!”
Readers seemed to think no riddle was too tricky, no problem too hard, that it couldn’t be sorted out. It was as if we owned some proprietary tool— a Freakonomics forceps, one might imagine— that could be plunged into the body politic to extract some buried wisdom.
If only that were true!
The fact is that solving problems is hard. If a given problem still exists, you can bet that a lot of people have already come along and failed to solve it. Easy problems evaporate; it is the hard ones that linger. Furthermore, it takes a lot of time to track down, organize, and analyze the data to answer even one small question well.
So 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?
• • •
Imagine you are a soccer player, a very fine one, and you’ve led your nation to the brink of a World Cup championship. All you must do now is make a single penalty kick. The odds are in your favor: roughly 75 percent of penalty kicks at the elite level are successful.
The crowd bellows as you place the ball on the chalked penalty mark. The goal is a mere 12 yards away; it is 8 yards across and 8 feet high.
The goalkeeper stares you down. Once the ball rockets off your boot, it will travel toward him at 80 miles per hour. At such a speed, he can ill afford to wait and see where you kick the ball; he must take a guess and fling his body in that direction. If the keeper guesses wrong, your odds rise to about 90 percent.
The best shot is a kick toward a corner of the goal with enough force that the keeper cannot make the save even if he guesses correctly. But such a shot leaves little margin for error: a slight miskick, and you’ll miss the goal completely. So you may want to ease up a bit, or aim slightly away from the corner— although that gives the keeper a better chance if he does guess correctly.
You must also choose between the left corner and the right. If you are a right- footed kicker, as most players are, going left is your “strong” side. That translates to more power and accuracy— but of course the keeper knows this too. That’s why keepers jump toward the kicker’s left corner 57 percent of the time, and to the right only 41.
So there you stand— the crowd in full throat, your heart in hyperspeed— preparing to take this life- changing kick. The eyes of the world are upon you, and the prayers of your nation. If the ball goes in, your name will forever be spoken in the tone reserved for the most beloved saints. If you fail—well, better not to think about that.
The options swirl through your head. Strong side or weak? Do you go hard for the corner or play it a bit safe? Have you taken penalty kicks against this keeper before—and if so, where did you aim? And where did he jump? As you think all this through, you also think about what the keeper is thinking, and you may even think about what the keeper is thinking about what you are thinking.
You know the chance of becoming a hero is about 75 percent, which isn’t bad. But wouldn’t it be nice to jack up that number? Might there be a better way to think about this problem? What if you could outfox your opponent by thinking beyond the obvious? You know the keeper is optimizing between jumping right and left. But what if … what if …what if you kick neither right nor left? What if you do the silliest thing imaginable and kick into the dead center of the goal?
Yes, that is where the keeper is standing now, but you are pretty sure he will vacate that spot as you begin your kick. Remember what the data say: keepers jump left 57 percent of the time and right 41 percent— which means they stay in the center only 2 times out of 100. A leaping keeper may of course still stop a ball aimed at the center, but how often can that happen? If only you could see the data on all penalty kicks taken toward the center of the goal!
Okay, we just happen to have that: a kick toward the center, as risky as it may appear, is seven percentage points more likely to succeed than a kick to the corner.
Are you willing to take the chance?
Let’s say you are. You trot toward the ball, plant your left foot, load up the right, and let it fly. You are instantaneously gripped by a bone- shaking roar— Goooooooooal! The crowd erupts in an orgasmic rush as you are buried beneath a mountain of teammates. This moment will last forever; the rest of your life will be one big happy party; your children grow up to be strong, prosperous, and kind. Congratulations!
While a penalty kick aimed at the center of the goal is significantly more likely to succeed, only 17 percent of kicks are aimed there. Why so few?
One reason is that at first glance, aiming center looks like a terrible idea. Kicking the ball straight at the goalkeeper? That just seems unnatural, an obvious violation of common sense— but then so did the idea of preventing a disease by injecting people with the very microbes that cause it.
Furthermore, one advantage the kicker has on a penalty kick is mystery: the keeper doesn’t know where he will aim. If kickers did the same thing every time, their success rate would plummet; if they started going center more often, keepers would adapt.
There is a third and important reason why more kickers don’t aim center, especially in a high- stakes setting like the World Cup. But no soccer player in his right mind would ever admit it: the fear of shame.
Imagine again you are the player about to take that penalty kick. At this most turbulent moment, what is your true incentive? The answer might seem obvious: you want to score the goal to win the game for your team. If that’s the case, the statistics plainly show you should kick the ball dead center. But is winning the game your truest incentive?
Picture yourself standing over the ball. You have just mentally committed to aiming for the center. But wait a minute— what if the goalkeeper doesn’t dive? What if for some reason he stays at home and you kick the ball straight into his gut, and he saves his country without even having to budge? How pathetic you will seem! Now the keeper is the hero and you must move your family abroad to avoid assassination.
So you reconsider.
You think about going the traditional route, toward a corner. If the keeper does guess correctly and stops the ball— well, you will have made a valiant effort even if it was bested by a more valiant one. No, you won’t become a hero, but nor will you have to flee the country.
If you follow this selfish incentive— protecting your own reputation by not doing something potentially foolish— you are more likely to kick toward a corner.
If you follow the communal incentive— trying to win the game for your nation even though you risk looking personally foolish— you will kick toward the center.
Sometimes in life, going straight up the middle is the boldest move of all.
If asked how we’d behave in a situation that pits a private benefit against the greater good, most of us won’t admit to favoring the private benefit. But as history clearly shows, most people, whether because of nature or nurture, generally put their own interests ahead of others’. This doesn’t make them bad people; it just makes them human.
But all this self- interest can be frustrating if your ambitions are larger than simply securing some small private victory. Maybe you want to ease poverty, or make government work better, or persuade your company to pollute less, or just get your kids to stop fighting. How are you supposed to get everyone to pull in the same direction when they are all pulling primarily for themselves?
We wrote this book to answer that sort of question. It strikes us that in recent years, the idea has arisen that there is a “right” way to think about solving a given problem and of course a “wrong” way too. This inevitably leads to a lot of shouting— and, sadly, a lot of unsolved problems. Can this situation be improved upon? We hope so. We’d like to bury the idea that there’s a right way and a wrong way, a smart way and a foolish way, a red way and a blue way. The modern world demands that we all think a bit more productively, more creatively, more rationally; that we think from a different angle, with a different set of muscles, with a different set of expectations; that we think with neither fear nor favor, with neither blind optimism nor sour skepticism. That we think like— ahem— a Freak.
Our first two books were animated by a relatively simple set of ideas:
Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life. And understanding them— or, often, deciphering them— is the key to understanding a problem, and how it might be solved.
Knowing what to measure, and how to measure it, can make a complicated world less so. There is nothing like the sheer power of numbers to scrub away layers of confusion and contradiction, especially with emotional, hot- button topics.
The conventional wisdom is often wrong. And a blithe acceptance of it can lead to sloppy, wasteful, or even dangerous outcomes.
Correlation does not equal causality. When two things travel together, it is tempting to assume that one causes the other. Married people, for instance, are demonstrably happier than single people; does this mean that marriage causes happiness? Not necessarily. The data suggest that happy people are more likely to get married in the first place. As one researcher memorably put it, “If you’re grumpy, who the hell wants to marry you?”
This book builds on these same core ideas, but there is a difference. The first two books were rarely prescriptive. For the most part, we simply used data to tell stories we found interesting, shining a light on parts of society that often lay in shadow. This book steps out of the shadows and tries to offer some advice that may occasionally be useful, whether you are interested in minor lifehacks or major global reforms.
That said, this isn’t a self- help book in the traditional sense. We are probably not the kind of people you’d typically want to ask for help; and some of our advice tends to get people into trouble rather than out of it.
Our thinking is inspired by what is known as the economic approach. That doesn’t mean focusing on “the economy”— far from it. The economic approach is both broader and simpler than that. It relies on data, rather than hunch or ideology, to understand how the world works, to learn how incentives succeed (or fail), how resources get allocated, and what sort of obstacles prevent people from getting those resources, whether they are concrete (like food and transportation) or more aspirational (like education and love).
There is nothing magical about this way of thinking. It usually traffics in the obvious and places a huge premium on common sense. So here’s the bad news: if you come to this book hoping for the equivalent of a magician spilling his secrets, you may be disappointed. But there’s good news too: thinking like a Freak is simple enough that anyone can do it. What’s perplexing is that so few people do.
Why is that?
One reason is that it’s easy to let your biases— political, intellectual, or otherwise— color your view of the world. A growing body of research suggests that even the smartest people tend to seek out evidence that confirms what they already think, rather than new information that would give them a more robust view of reality.
It’s also tempting to run with a herd. Even on the most important issues of the day, we often adopt the views of our friends, families, and colleagues. (You’ll read more on this in Chapter 6.) On some level, this makes sense: it is easier to fall in line with what your family and friends think than to find new family and friends! But running with the herd means we are quick to embrace the status quo, slow to change our minds, and happy to delegate our thinking.
Another barrier to thinking like a Freak is that most people are too busy to rethink the way they think— or to even spend much time thinking at all. When was the last time you sat for an hour of pure, unadulterated thinking? If you’re like most people, it’s been a while. Is this simply a function of our high- speed era? Perhaps not. The absurdly talented George Bernard Shaw— a world- class writer and a founder of the London School of Economics— noted this thought deficit many years ago. “Few people think more than two or three times a year,” Shaw reportedly said. “I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.”
We too try to think once or twice a week (though surely not as cleverly as Shaw) and encourage you to do the same.
This is not to say you should necessarily want to think like a Freak. It presents some potential downsides. You may find yourself way, way out of step with the prevailing winds. You might occasionally say things that make other people squirm. Perhaps, for instance, you meet a lovely, conscientious couple with three children, and find yourself blurting out that child car seats are a waste of time and money (at least that’s what the crash- test data say). Or, at a holiday dinner with your new girlfriend’s family, you blather on about how the local- food movement can actually hurt the environment— only to learn that her father is a hard-core locavore, and everything on the table was grown within fifty miles.
You’ll have to grow accustomed to people calling you a crank, or sputtering with indignation, or perhaps even getting up and walking out of the room. We have some firsthand experience with this.
Shortly after the publication of SuperFreakonomics, while on book tour in England, we were invited to meet with David Cameron, who would soon become prime minister of the United Kingdom.
While it is not uncommon for people like him to solicit ideas from people like us, the invitation surprised us. In the opening pages of SuperFreakonomics, we declared that we knew next to nothing about the macroeconomic forces—inflation, unemployment, and the like— that politicians seek to control by yanking a lever this way or that.
What’s more, politicians tend to shy away from controversy, and our book had already generated its fair share in the U.K. We had been grilled on national TV about a chapter that described an algorithm we created, in concert with a British bank, to identify suspected terrorists. Why on earth, the TV interviewers asked us, did we disclose the secrets that might help terrorists avoid detection? (We couldn’t answer that question at the time, but we do in Chapter 7 of this book. Hint: the disclosure was not an accident.)
We had also taken heat for suggesting that the standard playbook for fighting global warming was not going to work. In fact, the Cameron operative who collected us at the security post, a sharp young policy adviser named Rohan Silva, told us that his neighborhood bookshop refused to carry SuperFreakonomics because the shop’s owner so hated our global- warming chapter.
Silva took us to a conference room where roughly two dozen Cameron advisers waited. Their boss hadn’t yet arrived. Most of them were in their twenties or thirties. One gentleman, a once and future cabinet minister, was significantly more senior. He took the floor and told us that, upon election, the Cameron administration would fight global warming tooth and nail. If it were up to him, he said, Britain would become a zero- carbon society overnight. It was, he said, “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. We asked the minister what he meant by “moral obligation.”
“If it weren’t for England,” he continued, “the world wouldn’t be in the state it’s in. None of this would have happened.” He gestured upward and outward. The “this,” he implied, meant this room, this building, the city of London, all of civilization.
We must have looked puzzled, for he explained further. England, he said, having started the Industrial Revolution, led the rest of the world down the path toward pollution, environmental degradation, and global warming. It was therefore England’s obligation to take the lead in undoing the damage.
Just then Mr. Cameron burst through the door. “All right,” he boomed, “where are the clever people?”
He wore crisp white shirtsleeves, his trademark purple tie, and an air of irrepressible optimism. As we chatted, it became instantly clear why he was projected to become the next prime minister. Everything about him radiated competence and confidence. He looked to be exactly the sort of man whom deans at Eton and Oxford envision when they are first handed the boy.
Cameron said the biggest problem he would inherit as prime minister was a gravely ill economy. The U.K., along with the rest of the world, was still in the grip of a crushing recession. The mood, from pensioners to students to industry titans, was morose; the national debt was enormous and climbing. Immediately upon taking office, Cameron told us, he would need to make broad and deep cuts.
But, he added, there were a few precious, inalienable rights that he would protect at any cost.
Like what? we asked.
“Well, the National Health Service,” he said, eyes alight with pride. This made sense. The NHS provides cradle- to-grave health care for every Briton, most of it free at point of use. The oldest and largest such system in the world, it is as much a part of the national fabric as association football and spotted dick. One former chancellor of the ex chequer called the NHS “the closest thing the English have to a religion”—which is doubly interesting since England does have an actual religion.
There was just one problem: U.K. health- care costs had more than doubled over the previous ten years and were expected to keep rising.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, Cameron’s devotion to the NHS was based in part on an intense personal experience. His eldest child, Ivan, was born with a rare neurological disorder called Ohtahara syndrome. It is marked by frequent, violent seizures. As a result, the Cameron family had become all too familiar with NHS nurses, doctors, ambulances, and hospitals. “When your family relies on the NHS all the time, day after day, night after night, you really know just how precious it is,” he once told the Conservative Party’s annual conference. Ivan died in early 2009, a few months short of his seventh birthday.
So perhaps it was no surprise that Cameron, even as head of a party that embraced fiscal austerity, should view the NHS as sacrosanct. To monkey with the system, even during an economic crisis, would make as much political sense as drop- kicking one of the Queen’s corgis.
But that didn’t mean it made practical sense. While the goal of free, unlimited, lifetime health care is laudable, the economics are tricky. We now pointed this out, as respectfully as possible, to the presumptive prime minister.
Because there is so much emotion attached to health care, it can be hard to see that it is, by and large, like any other part of the economy. But under a setup like the U.K.’s, health care is virtually the only part of the economy where individuals can go out and get nearly any ser vice they need and pay close to zero, whether the actual cost of the procedure is $100 or $100,000.
What’s wrong with that? When people don’t pay the true cost of something, they tend to consume it inefficiently.
Think of the last time you sat down at an all- you- can- eat restaurant. How likely were you to eat a bit more than normal? The same thing happens if health care is distributed in a similar fashion: people consume more of it than if they were charged the sticker price. This means the “worried well” crowd out the truly sick, wait times increase for everyone, and a massive share of the costs go to the final months of elderly patients’ lives, often without much real advantage.
This sort of overconsumption can be more easily tolerated when health care is only a small part of the economy. But with health- care costs approaching 10 percent of GDP in the U.K.— and nearly double that in the United States— you have to seriously rethink how it is provided, and paid for.
We tried to make our point with a thought experiment. We suggested to Mr. Cameron that he consider a similar policy in a different arena. What if, for instance, every Briton were also entitled to a free, unlimited, lifetime supply of transportation? That is, what if everyone were allowed to go down to the car dealership whenever they wanted and pick out any new model, free of charge, and drive it home?
We expected him to light up and say, “Well, yes, that’d be patently absurd— there’d be no reason to maintain your old car, and everyone’s incentives would be skewed. I see your point about all this free health care we’re doling out!”
But he said no such thing. In fact he didn’t say anything at all. The smile did not leave David Cameron’s face, but it did leave his eyes. Maybe our story hadn’t come out as we’d intended. Or maybe it did, and that was the problem. In any case, he offered a quick handshake and hurried off to find a less- ridiculous set of people with whom to meet.
You could hardly blame him. Fixing a huge problem like runaway health- care costs is about a thousand times harder than, say, figuring out how to take a penalty kick. (That’s why, as we argue in Chapter 5, you should focus on small problems whenever possible.) We also could have profited from knowing then what we know now about persuading people who don’t want to be persuaded (which we cover in Chapter 8).
That said, we fervently believe there is a huge upside in retraining your brain to think differently about problems large and small. In this book, we share everything we’ve learned over the past several years, some of which has worked out better than our brief encounter with the prime minister.
Are you willing to give it a try? Excellent! The first step is to not be embarrassed by how much you don’t yet know… .
 * See Notes on page 215 for all underlying research citations and other background information.