Think Like A Freak, by the authors of Freakonomics, intends to help people break conventional thinking by teaching the world, one reader at a time, how to think in a more unorthodox yet effective manner – “a bit differently, a bit harder, a bit more freely,” as the writers put it.
You’ll gain the ability to view the world in a way that no one else can, and in doing so, you’ll discover solutions that you might not have thought of otherwise. In other words, this book aims to teach you how to think differently.
This article will summarise 9 critical ideas from the book you can apply to your daily life.
Table of Contents
- How to think differently and break conventions
- Acknolwedge we don’t know everything and never trust experts blindly
- Look past public discussion and redefine the problem
- Think outside of the box and don’t focus on symptoms
- Think like a child – Have fun and be curious
- Pay attention to the incentives, which drives behavior
- Understand what drives people
- How to get someone to listen to you (Persuasion)
- Thinking like a freak will make you happy
How to think differently and break conventions
When we try to solve problems, most of us are guided by traditional concepts. However, there is a problem with conventional beliefs: they are frequently incorrect.
Consider the “local food” trend. The majority of individuals believe that eating locally grown food has a lower environmental impact.
However, a recent study indicated that this movement was actually counterproductive because the tiny farms it promotes demand more energy for production, outweighing any favorable effects of reduced transportation.
This is exactly what thinking like a freak entails: basing one’s opinions and decisions on statistical evidence rather than common knowledge.
But how can this be applied in real life? For one thing, thinking like a freak might help you solve difficulties.
Assume you’re a soccer player preparing to take a penalty kick that might win your team the World Cup.
How may you improve your odds of scoring? If you’re right-footed, as most players are, aiming to the left will result in a stronger, more accurate kick. Because goalkeepers are aware of this strategy, they will jump to the kicker’s left side 57% of the time and 41% of the time.
Interestingly, keepers only stay in the center of the goal two percent of the time, therefore a kick “straight up the middle” is seven percent more likely to be successful than a kick to either corner.
However, while thinking like a freak has numerous benefits, it may jeopardize your popularity.
For example, only 17% of all penalties in professional soccer are shot at the center.
Because it is such a clear violation of the conventions. Also, if the goalie stays in the middle and catches the ball with no effort, the penalty taker may lose the support of his followers, and become embarrassed.
Consider how popular you’ll be if you tell a “locavore” buddy that the local-food movement is harmful to the environment!
Acknolwedge we don’t know everything and never trust experts blindly
Many of us find it difficult to accept when we are wrong. Instead of admitting our ignorance, we are overconfident and claim to know something we don’t.
Consider the fact that when asked to estimate their driving skills, about 80% of respondents classified themselves as “above average,” despite the reality that only 49.99 percent of them can be above-average drivers.
People also pretend to know something because they don’t want to appear foolish. So they nod and grin, even though they don’t understand what’s being said, or they pass off newspaper articles as their own.
However, acknowledging that you don’t know something has significant advantages.
For one thing, it can boost your reputation. People are more inclined to believe you when you claim to know something if you are known for admitting your lack of knowledge.
Another benefit is that by remaining conscious of what you don’t know, you can learn and, eventually, figure out the truth.
Experts are one type of people who are unlikely to reveal a lack of knowledge since they are more prone to bluff when they are unsure. As a result, we should be wary about completely trusting them.
For example, we frequently base our decisions on expert predictions – for example, when picking which stock to invest in – yet there are reasons why we shouldn’t.
For starters, they have motivations to fabricate knowledge: experts who make bold predictions that turn out to be correct may be celebrated for years, but if those predictions are incorrect, they will most likely be forgotten.
Second, experts are actually lousy at forecasting. According to one study, the accuracy rate of stock-market gurus’ predictions is only 47.4 percent – poorer chances than flipping a coin!
Look past public discussion and redefine the problem
When the media focuses on a particular component of a problem, such as the racial origin of a criminal, instead of a multitude of other pertinent aspects, their arguments tend to dominate public discourse.
We should attempt to go outside the media’s focus, as public discourse might lead us to overlook other, more fruitful approaches.
Consider the American education problem, where the focus is on the schooling system and issues such as teacher qualifications and class size.
Clearly, improvements in these two areas would assist to enhance children’s school performance, but numerous studies suggest that parenting has a far greater impact on schoolchildren’s success than factors such as instructors’ abilities.
Therefore, the best strategy would be to focus on questions such as, “What have children learned from their parents?” And, has a desire for learning been instilled?
However, because the media focuses on a specific component of the problem – “what’s wrong with our schools” – we miss the basic question: why are American children often less knowledgeable than those from many other countries? By focusing on the core issue, we are able to find additional facets of the situation and develop effective solutions.
In addition to looking beyond the public dialogue, it is occasionally beneficial to reinterpret the issue.
When Kobi, a thin Japanese student, entered the world’s largest hotdog-eating tournament for the first time, none of his opponents viewed him as a threat.
But Kobi did not simply win the competition. He surpassed the previous record by devouring fifty hot dogs!
How? He reformulated the issue, from “How can I eat more?” tto “How can I make eating hot dogs easier?”
This prompted Kobi to develop other strategies, such as soaking the buns in water and eating them apart from the sausages, which proved to be his secret to success.
Think outside of the box and don’t focus on symptoms
It’s always hard to get to the bottom of a problem. So what’s the best way for you to get there?
“Think outside the box” is a very useful way to think.
How does this work? Take the following example into account.
In their best-selling book, Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner looked at possible reasons why violent crime has dropped so much since the 1990s.
By doing a statistical analysis, they found that things like more police presence didn’t have enough of an effect to explain the drop as a whole.
So what was the thing that was missing?
Levitt happened to remember a statistic about how dramatically the number of abortions went up after they were legalized nationwide in the 1970s. After doing some statistical analysis, he found that this was related to the drop in crime.
This may sound crazy, but there’s a simple reason for it: more abortions in the 1970s meant fewer unwanted babies were born, so fewer kids grew up in hard situations that often lead to crime.
When looking for the root cause of a problem, you should think outside the box and also make sure you don’t mistake a symptom for a cause.
Take this question as an example: What causes poverty and famine?
At first, the answer seems clear: they don’t have enough money or food.
But if that were true, why has the problem kept going on even though aid groups and governments are always trying to give money and food to poor areas?
Poverty and famine are signs of a bigger problem: the lack of a functioning economy and trustworthy political, social, and legal institutions.
Think like a child – Have fun and be curious
Think like a freak means to think like a child in many ways.
For example, imagine that you’re a professional magician. Who would you rather talk to: kids or adults?
You might think it would be much easier to wow kids with magic, but kids are actually a much tougher crowd.
Why? Because kids are curious and therefore more difficult to deceive. Alex Stone, a professional magician and expert on deception, says there are a few reasons for this.
One reason is that adults are good at focusing their attention on one thing. Though you might consider this an advantage, focus – while essential to getting things done – can leave you vulnerable to misdirection.
On the other hand, kids are more curious and try to look at an illusion from different points of view. Because of this, they often notice important details that adults miss, which helps them figure out how the trick works.
Other things that kids do, like having fun and pointing out the obvious, are also important for all of us to do.
First, you’ll want to do more of your work if you enjoy it. Also, research shows that the best way to predict future success is to be interested in what you do.
Second, asking questions that most people don’t ask about the obvious can lead to all kinds of insights.
For example, the link between the legalization of abortion and the drop in violent crime in the 1990s was found by chance when it was noticed that the number of abortions went up a lot right after they were made legal in the 1970s.
Most people only think about abortion in political or moral terms and would never think it could be related to other social phenomena. However, people who are in touch with their “inner child” would react to such a statistical spike with wonder and curiosity: “What a huge increase. Something must have changed because of that!”
Pay attention to the incentives, which drives behavior
Understanding how incentives change our behavior is the key to understanding problems and finding solutions.
Robert Cialdini, a psychologist, ran an experiment to find out what made people most likely to save energy. Participants were asked to rate how much each of four things affected their decision to save energy.
Cialdini found that taking care of the environment was the most important thing. The second most important reason was that saving energy helps everyone. It saves money was the third reason. The least important of the four factors was that other people do it.
But do these rewards work in the real world?
To find out, Cialdini’s research team went from house to house in a Californian neighborhood and put up signs telling people to use fans instead of air conditioning in the summer to save energy.
Five different versions of the cards were given out at random to the residents. One had a neutral headline, and the others had headlines that fit one of the four reasons above.
Since the researchers were able to measure how much energy each house actually used, they could tell which of the signs worked best.
Who wins? Surprisingly, it was the card that made people want to follow the crowd. So, “other people are doing it” – which was ranked as the least important reason to save energy in the survey – turned out to be the best reason to do so.
From this, what can we learn?
If you want to change someone’s behavior, you shouldn’t tell them, “Too many people are wasting energy—that has to stop!” This is because it sends the message, “Many people like you do this, so it can’t be that bad.”
A better public service announcement would say, “Everyone wants to save energy. What about you?”
Understand what drives people
Most of the time, a person who is lying or cheating will react differently to an incentive than a person who is being honest. This is a way to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
How? By using certain tactics, like acting cruel, you can get people to tell you what they really want.
Take this example from the Bible as an example: Two women brought a problem to King Solomon. They both lived in the same house, and each had just had a baby boy. After the second woman’s baby died, the first woman said that the second woman swapped the babies while she was sleeping. The second woman said that wasn’t true.
King Solomon told the women that he would use a sword to cut the child in half and give each of them a half to solve the problem.
The first woman begged him not to hurt the baby and give it to the second woman instead, which the second woman didn’t mind.
The king thought that a real mother would love her child too much to let it die, but a jealous woman who could steal another woman’s baby would be happy with this solution.
Another example from real life shows how this works.
Van Halen was one of the most popular rock bands of all time, and they were known for being very demanding. In their rider, under “Munchies,” they asked for M&Ms with the warning, “WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES.”
At first glance, this might look like a rock star going overboard, but it was actually a smart move.
The live show by Van Halen had to follow strict safety rules. They could only be sure that a local promoter had read all of their instructions carefully by seeing if there were any brown M&Ms in the bowl backstage. If it did, the rest of the gear would have to be checked very carefully.
The band knew that promoters who were looking for “easy money” would ignore the part about the M&Ms, but those who were looking to do a good job would not.
How to get someone to listen to you (Persuasion)
You’ve probably noticed that most people don’t agree with you when you question their common sense.
So, what can you do to get people to agree with you?
First, admit that it’s hard to get people to change their minds because they tend to ignore facts that don’t fit with their worldview.
For example, most climate scientists think that global warming will probably cause changes to our environment that aren’t good, but the American public isn’t very worried about this.
In one study, researchers from the Cultural Cognition Project thought that people don’t care about climate change because they don’t know enough about science to understand what climate scientists are saying.
But when they put their theory to the test, they couldn’t find any link between knowing about science and being worried about climate change. But they did find another interesting pattern.
People who knew a lot about science were more likely to have an extreme opinion, like that climate change is very scary or doesn’t matter at all.
Their high level of confidence in their position probably came from having a good understanding of the world in general and having more experience than the average person with feeling like they’re “in the right.”
Also, because they were more educated, they were able to find evidence that supported their point while ignoring any arguments that went against it.
So, even if you have good arguments and statistics, you should expect it to be hard to change someone’s mind.
If you want to convince someone of something, you must first get her to listen. This means that you should listen to her point of view and then tell her a story.
People tend to be too sure of their own ideas and not trust those that are different, so it’s best not to act like your argument is solid. Instead, admit the good points of your opponent’s argument and explain why you still think differently.
Also, catchy stories are often the best way to prove your point. Stories are just harder to ignore and forget than abstract details.
Thinking like a freak will make you happy
Thinking like a freak can help us solve problems and make us happier at the same time.
Most well-meaning conventional advice is actually bad for your happiness, so do yourself a favor and don’t listen to it too much.
“A winner never quits, and a quitter never wins” is a popular saying that is actually bad advice.
Why does this not work? Because there are already enough things that make it hard for us to quit.
Even when it’s clear that quitting is the best choice, we often don’t do it. This is true for more than one reason.
First, there is social pressure. We’ve been taught that giving up is a sign of weakness.
Second, there are sunk costs. The more we put into something, the harder it is for us to give up.
This is also called the “Concorde Fallacy,” after the first airplane to fly faster than sound. Everyone involved knew that the project couldn’t make money, but they didn’t want to give up because they had already put so much money into it. What happened? They lost a lot more money in the end than they would have if they had given up earlier.
Third, we often forget about the opportunity costs. We often forget that when we do one thing, we miss out on doing something else.
But if we can let go of dogmas like “a winner never quits,” we can be much happier.
The authors set up a website where people who were having trouble making a choice could flip a virtual coin. They did this to find out how different choices affect happiness. After a few months, the people who took part were asked if they had done anything about the coin flip and how happy they were.
People were surprised to find that breaking up with a partner and quitting a job both made them happier.
This doesn’t mean that people should quit their jobs or relationships more often, but there’s also no evidence that quitting makes people unhappy.
Most of the time, conventional wisdom is wrong, and questioning popular dogmas can help you understand how things work better. Learning how to think like a freak can help you find surprising and useful solutions to problems that you might not have thought of before. This way of thinking requires a lot of curiosity and a willingness to think outside the box. You may also find other book summaries interesting such as Free Prize Inside, How brands grow, and Marketing made simple.