Think Like a Freak – by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Think-Like-A-Freak-Dubner-LevittISBN: 0062218344
Read: March 2015
Rating: 7/10

Amazon page for more details and reviews.

An entertaining read about thinking differently about success, thinking like a child, quitting, and more. I loved the case-studies and trademark irreverence of the authors.

My Notes

The Three Hardest Words in the English Language

“I don’t know”

The key to learning is feedback. It is nearly impossible to learn anything without it.

A better way to get good feedback is to run a field experiment— that is, rather than trying to mimic the real world in a lab, take the lab mind-set into the real world. You’re still running an experiment but the subjects don’t necessarily know it, which means the feedback you’ll glean is pure.

What’s Your Problem?

“Can the success of Takeru Kobayashi, as magnificent as it was, be applied to anything more significant than the high speed consumption of hot dogs? We believe it can. If you think like a Freak, there are at least two broader lessons to be gleaned from his approach.

The first is about problem solving generally. Kobayashi redefined the problem he was trying to solve. What question were his competitors asking? It was essentially: How do I eat more hot dogs? Kobayashi asked a different question: How do I make hot dogs easier to eat? This question let him to experiment and gather feedback that changed the game.

Solving a problem is hard enough; it gets that much harder if you’ve decided beforehand it can’t be done.”

pg 69

“It can be unsettling, even frightening, to share a root cause in the eye. Maybe that’s why we so often avoid it. It is a lot easier to argue about cops and prisons and gun laws than the thorny question of what makes a parent fit to raise a child. But if you want to have a worthwhile conversation about crime, it makes sense to start by talking about the benefits of good, loving parents who give their children a chance to lead safe and productive lives.”

Think Like a Child

pg 90

“1. Small questions are by their nature less often asked and investigated, and maybe not at all. They are virgin territory for true learning.

2. Since big problems are usually a dense mass of intertwined small problems, you can make more progress by tackling a small piece of the big problem than by flailing away at grand solutions.

3. Any kind of change is hard, but the chances of triggering change on a small problem are much greater than on a big one.

4. Thinking big is, by definition, an exercise in imprecision or even speculation. When you think small, the stakes may be diminished but at least you can be relatively sure you know what you’re talking about.”

pg 96

“They don’t pretend they’re enjoying a meeting when they really want to get up and run around. Kids are in love with their own audacity, mesmerised by the world around them, and unstoppable in their pursuit of fun.”


“Perhaps the arena most in need of a fun injection is public policy. Think about how policymakers generally try to shape society: by cajoling, threatening, or taxing people into behaving better. The implication is that if something is fun – gambling or eating cheeseburgers or treating the presidential election like e horse race – then it must be bad for us. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Rather than dismiss the fun impulse, why not co-opt it for the greater good?”

Like Giving Candy to a Baby [Incentives]


“Different types of incentives—financial, social, moral, legal, and others— push people’s buttons in different directions, in different magnitudes. An incentive that works beautifully in one setting may backfire in another. But if you want to think like a Freak, you must learn to be a master of incentives— the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

pg 111

“Cash incentives, with all their limitations and wrinkles, are plainly not perfect. But here’s the good news: it is often possible to elicit the behaviour you want through non financial means. And it’s a lot cheaper too.

How to do this?

The key is to learn to climb inside other people’s minds to figure out what really matters to them. Theoretically, this shouldn’t be so hard. We all have a lot of practice thinking about how we respond to incentives. Now it’s time to sit on the other side of the table, as in a good marriage, to understand what someone else wants. Yes, it may be money they’re after— but just as often they are motivated by wanting to be liked, or not be hated; by wanting to stand out in a crowd, or perhaps not stand out.”

“In economics, these are known as declared preferences and revealed preferences, and there is often a hefty gap between the two.”

p124 (Smile Train charity donations case study)

“Why did Brian Mullaney’s gamble work so well? There are several explanations:

1. Novelty. When is the last time a charity— or any kind of company— offered to never bother you again? That alone is enough to get your attention.

2. Candor. Have you ever heard a charity acknowledge what a hassle it is to get all those beseeching letters in the mail? In a world of crooked information, it is nice to hear some straight talk.

3. Control. Rather than unilaterally dictate the terms of the transaction, Smile Train gave the donor some power. Who doesn’t like to control their own destiny?”

“The most radical accomplishment of once-and-done is that it changed the frame of the relationship between the charity and the donor.”

p133 [ HCFC-22 reduction incentives]

“Why do some incentives, even those created by smart and well-intentioned people, backfire so badly? We can think of at least three reasons:

1. No individual government will ever be as smart as all the people out there scheming to beat an incentive plan.

2. It’s easy to envision how you’d change the behaviour of people who think just like you do, but the people whose behaviour you’re trying to change often don’t think like you— and, there, don’t respond as you might expect.

3. There is a tendency to assume that the way people behave today is how they’ll always behave. But the very nature of an incentive suggests that when a rule changes, behaviour does too— although not necessarily, as we’ve seen, in the expected direction.”

“Here’s a simple set of rules that usually point us in the right direction:

1. Figure out what people really care about, not what they say they care about.

2. Incentivise them on the dimensions that are valuable to them but cheap for you to provide.

3. Pay attention to how people respond; if they response surprises or frustrates you, learn from it and try something different.

4. Whenever possible, create incentives that switch the frame from adversarial to cooperative.

5. Never, ever think that people will do something just because it is the “right” thing to do.

6. Know that some people will do everything they can to game the system, finding ways to win that you never could have imagined. If only to keep yourself sane, try to applaud their ingenuity rather than curse their greed.”

pg 159 [Nigerian scammers]

“The goal of the email is not so much to attract viable users as to repel the non-viable ones, who greatly outnumber them…A less-outlandish wording that did not mention Nigeria would almost certainly gather more total responses and more viable responses, but would yield lower overall profit…”

What do King Solomon and David Lee Roth have in common?

King Solomon and DLR showed a simple version of game theory can work wonders.

As disparate as their settings were, the two men faced a similar problem: a need to sift the guilty from the innocent when no one was stepping forward to profess their guilt. There was a “pooling equilibrium”—the two mothers in Van Halen’s case—that needed to be broken down into a “separating equilibrium”.

You too can play God once in a while if you learn to set up a self-weeding garden….What if employers, rather than making the application process ever easier, made it unnecessarily onerous—with, say, a 60- or 90-minute application that weeds out the dilettantes?

How to Persuade People Who Don’t Want to Be Persuaded:

1. Understand how hard persuasion will be, and why. When someone is heavily invested in his or her opinion, it is inevitably hard to change the person’s mind. Even on a topic that people don’t care much about, it can be hard to get their attention long enough to prompt a change.

2. It’s not me, it’s you. Whenever you set out to persuade someone, remember that you are merely the producer of the argument. The consumer has the only vote that counts.

3. Don’t pretend your argument is perfect. If you make an argument that promises all benefits and no costs, your opponent will never buy it—nor should he. If you paper over the shortcomings of your plan, that only gives your opponent reason to doubt the rest of it.

4. Acknowledge the strengths of your opponent’s argument. If you are trying to persuade someone, why on earth would you want to lend credence to his argument? One reason is that the opposing argument almost certainly has value, something you can learn from and use to strengthen your own argument. (We are blind to our blindness) Furthermore, an opponent who feels his argument is ignored isn’t likely to engage with you at all.

5. Keep the insults to yourself.

6. Why you should tell stories. If you really want to persuade someone who doesn’t wish to be persuaded, you should tell him a story. Not an anecdote. A story fills out the picture. It uses data, statistical or otherwise, to portray a sense of magnitude; without data, we have no idea how a story fits into the larger scheme of things. A good story also includes the passage of time, to show the degree of constancy or change; without a time frame, we can’t judge whether we’re looking at something truly noteworthy or just an anomalous big. And a story lays out a daisy chain of events, to show the causes that lead up to a particular situation and the consequences that result from it. (e.g. Story about the lamb and David of Isreal)

The Upside of Quitting

Sunk-cost fallacy: throwing good money after bad.

Opportunity cost: for every dollar or hour or brain cell you spend on one thing, you surround the opportunity to spend it elsewhere.

Failure can provide valuable feedback.

“The key is failing fast and failing cheap. That’s a mantra that comes out of Silicon Valley. I prefer the statement ‘failing well’, or ‘failing smart’” Goeff Dean who runs Intellectual Venture’s lab.

Premortems try to find out what might go wrong before it’s too late. You gather everyone connected with a project and have them imagine that it launched and failed miserably. Now they each write down the exact reasons for its failure. Klein has found that a premortem can help flush out the flaws or doubts in a project that no one had been willing to speak aloud.

Quitting is at the core of thinking like a Freak. Or if that word still frightens you, let’s think of it as “letting go”. Letting go of the conventional wisdoms that torment us. Letting go of the artificial limits that hold us back— and of the fear of admitting what 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.