Think Like a Freak – Steven D. Levitt

Here are my comments on the book:

How do you think like a “freak?” In his book Steven Levitt, distinguished service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, and director of the Becker Center on Chicago Price Theory at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, states that things don’t necessarily appear to be as they are and he outlines various strategies on ways to better solve life’s problems. Here are some of the points to the book:


1. Whenever you’re faced with a problem, look for the root cause to treat it rather than treating the side effects. Sometimes things aren’t exactly as they appear to be and so digging deeper is a must. In the book A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger says that you should ask the question “Why” several times to dig deeper towards learning the root cause of things. By constantly asking yourself “Why?”, you’ll be able to uncover the real underlying reason.In Freakonomics, we identified one missing factor: the legalization of abortion in the early 1970s. The theory was jarring but simple. A rise in abortion meant that fewer unwanted children were being born, which meant fewer children growing up in the sort of difficult circumstances that increase the likelihood of criminality. Given the history of abortion in the U.S.—there are few issues as morally and politically fraught—this theory was bound to be discomfiting for abortion opponents and supporters alike. We steeled ourselves for a shouting match.


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2. As much as I believe in having free, all-you-can have social services it’s a great notion up until a certain point. As services become free or with a slight cost to the consumer, it actually causes inefficiencies with those using them and consequently costs, and the amount of taxes you pay, go up. This is why I’m not a big fan of buffets. Buffets are notoriously known for serving junk food. When you go to a buffet, you feel obligated to stuff your face with as much food to get your “money’s worth”. However, that’s a lose-lose situation. You lose because you’re eating non-healthy foods and you’re also losing because that money spent could have been utilized more effectively (i.e. saved up to later invest that’ll yield you a greater return). 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 service 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.


3.  Contrary to conventional thought, there’s a theory that not having something to blame your problems on increases the likelihood of suicide. Have someone/something to blame? Haha joking.Consider a problem like suicide. It is so morally fraught that we rarely discuss it in public; it is as if we’ve thrown a black drape over the entire topic. This doesn’t seem to be working out very well. There are about 38,000 suicides a year in the United States, more than twice the number of homicides. Suicide is one of the top ten causes of death for nearly every age group. Because talking about suicide carries such a strong moral taboo, these facts are little known. As of this writing, the U.S. homicide rate is lower than it’s been in fifty years. The rate of traffic fatalities is at a historic low, having fallen by two-thirds since the 1970s. The overall suicide rate, meanwhile, has barely budged—and worse yet, suicide among 15- to 24-year-olds has tripled over the past several decades. One might think, therefore, that by studying the preponderance of cases, society has learned everything possible about what leads people to commit suicide. David Lester, a psychology professor at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, has likely thought about suicide longer, harder, and from more angles than any other human. In more than twenty-five-hundred academic publications, he has explored the relationship between suicide and, among other things, alcohol, anger, antidepressants, astrological signs, biochemistry, blood type, body type, depression, drug abuse, gun control, happiness, holidays, Internet use, IQ, mental illness, migraines, the moon, music, national-anthem lyrics, personality type, sexuality, smoking, spirituality, TV watching, and wide-open spaces. Has all this study led Lester to some grand unified theory of suicide? Hardly. So far he has one compelling notion. It’s what might be called the ‘no one left to blame’ theory of suicide. While one might expect that suicide is highest among people whose lives are the hardest, research by Lester and others suggests the opposite: suicide is more common among people with a higher quality of life. ‘If you’re unhappy and you have something to blame your unhappiness on—if it’s the government, or the economy, or something—then that kind of immunizes you against committing suicide,’ he says. ‘It’s when you have no external cause to blame for your unhappiness that suicide becomes more likely. I’ve used this idea to explain why African-Americans have lower suicide rates, why blind people whose sight is restored often become suicidal, and why adolescent suicide rates often rise as their quality of life gets better.’


4. To learn anything faster, reflect on your learning. Reflect on what went well and what could have been better. Self-reflection is the most important part of learning. If you keep doing something without reflecting on the results, you’re not going to be able to learn from what you’ve done and how it could be better for the next time. “The key to learning is feedback. It is nearly impossible to learn anything without it. Imagine you’re the first human in history who’s trying to make bread—but you’re not allowed to actually bake it and see how the recipe turns out. Sure, you can adjust the ingredients and other variables all you want. But if you never get to bake and eat the finished product, how will you know what works and what doesn’t? Should the ratio of flour to water be 3:1 or 2:1? What happens if you add salt or oil or yeast—or maybe animal dung? Should the dough be left to sit before baking—and if so, for how long, and under what conditions? How long will it need to bake? Covered or uncovered? How hot should the fire be? Even with good feedback, it can take a while to learn. (Just imagine how bad some of that early bread was!) But without it, you don’t stand a chance; you’ll go on making the same mistakes forever.


5. Don’t think you’re limited to your current circumstances. Consistently ask yourself and think of ways how you can one-up your goals after you’ve reached them. In the book The Sustainable Edge, Ron Carson talks about setting up actions to increase your business by 15%/year. If you don’t have a business, think of ways you can increase your net worth by 15%/year. If you grow at a compounded rate of 15%/year, you’ll double around every 5 years. 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 led him to experiment and gather the feedback that changed the game. Only by redefining the problem was he able to discover a new set of solutions. Kobayashi came to view competitive eating as a fundamentally different activity than everyday eating. He saw it as a sport—a disgusting one, perhaps, at least to most people—but, as with any sport, it required specific training, strategy, and physical and mental maneuvers. Seeing an eating contest as an amplified version of everyday eating was, to him, like seeing a marathon as an amplified version of walking down the street. Sure, most of us walk well enough, and even for a long time if necessary. But completing a marathon is a bit more complicated than that. It is of course easier to redefine a problem like competitive eating than, say, a faltering education system or endemic poverty—but even with complex issues like these, a good start would be to assess the core of the problem as shrewdly as Kobayashi did with his. The second lesson to be drawn from Kobayashi’s success has to do with the limits that we accept, or refuse to. Over dinner that night at Cafe Luxembourg, Kobayashi said that when he started training, he refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the existing Coney Island record of 25⅛ HDB. Why? He reasoned that the record didn’t stand for much since his earlier competitors had been asking the wrong question about eating hot dogs. As he saw it, the record was an artificial barrier. So he went into the contest not thinking about 25⅛ as any sort of an upper bound. He instructed his mind to pay zero attention to the number of dogs he was eating and to concentrate solely on how he ate them. Would he still have won that first contest if he had mentally honored the barrier of 25⅛? Perhaps, but it is hard to imagine he would have doubled the record.


By Ryan Timothy Lee


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My rating:
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Check out the book here:
Amazon US
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