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Book Review: Think Like A Freak

The authors offer a blueprint for an entirely new way to solve problems.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   22-12-2017

University of Chicago professor Steven D. Levitt
University of Chicago professor Steven D. Levitt is a leading micro-economist and has done influential work on natural experiments in economics

Think Like A Freak: How to Think Smarter about Almost Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, published by William Morrow and Company.

In Think Like a Freak, the third installment of the Freakonomics phenomenon, prize-winning University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen Dubner set out to help readers master the economic manner of thinking made famous in their previous best-sellers Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics.

Sharply observed, Think Like A Freak, teaches us all to think a bit more creatively and rationally — to think, that is, like a freak. Thinking like a freak means putting a new spin on the way you’re used to thinking, and mixing things up to keep solutions flowing. The books opens with a dilemma that puts you smack down in the middle of a do-or-die penalty shootout.

Imagine you are one of the planet's finest football players, in the World Cup final, and the match has come down to penalty kicks. As you stare down the goalie, you must decide where to kick. The corners are a good bet — the keeper may not make the save even if he guesses which side you kick to, but the disadvantage is that you could go wide and miss the goal. Then there’s the quandary about which corner? If you go with your strong side (left for a right-footed kicker), the goalie could guess correctly, but if you go to your weak side, you could miss — and be vilified in your country forever!

The authors set forward a third choice: What about shooting right down the center? Since the ball moves too quickly for the goalie to react once it’s in the air, he will normally dive to one side the second your foot touches the ball — 57% of the time to the left and 41% of the time to the right. But there’s only a 2% chance he’ll stay in the center, which is why center kicks are more likely to succeed (by seven percentage points according to the author) than kicks to corners.

"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?" ask the authors.

"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," write the authors.

They then offer a subtle reason: the fear and stigma of shame. As they put it, “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!”

The authors then paint two scenarios: "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."

In conclusion, "sometimes in life, going straight up the middle is the boldest move of all."

If you enjoyed the footballer's dilemma, then you'll love learning the secrets of a Japanese hot-dog-eating champion, the reason an Australian doctor swallowed a batch of dangerous bacteria, and why Nigerian e-mail scammers make a point of saying they’re from Nigeria.

The authors offer some of the steps toward thinking like a Freak:

Be willing to say, “I don’t know.”

Until you can admit what you don’t yet know, it’s virtually impossible to learn what you need to.

Think like a child

When it comes to generating ideas and asking questions, it works to think small like a child. “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," say the authors.

Book Jacket of Think Like a Freak

Furthermore, “Because children know so little, they don’t carry around the preconceptions that often stop people from seeing things as they are.” That means they don’t rule out possibilities that are unsophisticated or seem unlikely.

Uncover the M&M clause

Rock band Van Halen's touring contract carried a 53-page rider that laid out technical specs as well as food requirements. On page 40 was the "munchies" section. It demanded potato chips, nuts, pretzels, and "M&M's (Warning: Absolutely no brown ones)." What was up with that?

When the M&M clause was leaked to the press, it was seen as a classic case of rock-star behaviour. But Van Halen lead singer David Roth explained years later that Van Halen's live show was a high-voltage affair and the band wanted to make sure no one got killed by a collapsing stage or a short-circuiting light tower. Every time the band pulled into a new city, how could they be sure the local promoter had read the rider and followed all the safety procedures? Cue the brown M&M's. When Roth arrived, he'd immediately go backstage to check out the bowl of M&M's. If he saw brown ones, he knew the promoter hadn't read the rider carefully. In short, the venue wasn't safe to play.

Fun to read, it's easy to see why colleges over the past few years have asked their students to read Levitt and Dubner's books, making it a popular summer reading pick for American colleges.

Uttara Choudhury is a writer for Forbes India and The Wire. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London.

Quite the bookworm? Here are a few more titles you can enjoy!
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