A Journalist's Archive

Think Like a Freak
Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Start the New Year off right by learning how to “Think Like a Freak.” Authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner addressed a myriad of world problems via an “economic approach” in “Freakonomics” and “Superfreakonomics.” Now they want to inspire us to “retrain our brains” so we can examine our world rationally. Their plan for a more productive and creative life includes a lot of commonsense advice. Along the way, they give stellar examples of successful people who learned to look at problems from every angle. All refused to let “conventional wisdom” stand in the way of accomplishing their goals.
           Yet oddly enough, the writers scream repeatedly that “this is not a self-help book.” Me thinks the authors doth protest too much!
          After all, they begin by encouraging us “to put away your moral compass” when attempting to solve a problem. That statement appears worrisome, counterintuitive, and impossible to achieve, because our thought process is shaped by our culture, religion and political inclinations. However, the authors aren’t asking us to disregard our moral code, just put it aside long enough to consider that these “biases” often “color your view of the world.”
          Next, we learn how fears can impede our progress. Levitt and Dubner claim “the three hardest words” for many adults to say are “I don’t know,” simply because we don’t want to appear uninformed or stupid. But unless we can admit what we don’t know, we miss out on the opportunity to ask questions and learn. And there’s an added bonus to saying “I don’t know.” It stops us from looking exceptionally foolish when others notice we’ve been bluffing.
          What I like best about this book is the range of stories the authors use to illustrate their points. There is useful information for parents, entrepreneurs, sport enthusiasts, members of the medical profession, and even want-to-be magicians.
          The writers then advise us to “think like a child.” Children constantly ask “why.” Sadly, for many adults that habit diminishes with age. Yet, those adults who retain that childlike quality are the people who make a difference in this world.
          In 1981, Barry Marshall, “a young Australian medical resident,” asked why he found bacteria living in 20 patients’ stomachs, when the conventional wisdom of the day claimed bacteria couldn’t survive in the stomach because of its acidity. His question led to the discovery that ulcers are caused by bacteria, instead of stress or spicy food as once thought.
          Today, that one questioning researcher is responsible for a whole new field of medical study. Now biologists understand the role of microbes in the gut may be key to curing not only stomach disorders, but multiple sclerosis, cancer, obesity, Parkinson’s disease, and much more. Read about Thomas Borody, a gastroenterologist, whose research is based on Marshall’s findings. Borody has already cured patients with ulcerative colitis – once thought to be incurable. But he said, “the list of aliments that may have a root cause living in the human gut is nearly endless.”
          Now Borody and other scientists are identifying the bacterial culprits, and replacing those with beneficial gut bacteria. Unfortunately, how they accomplish that makes the average person more than a little squeamish. Yes, it would be a hard pill to swallow. But Borody claims to have successfully treated Parkinson’s and MS patients with this method. So if sometime in the near future it’s a choice between chemotherapy, death, or a “fecal transplant” in the form of a pill, most of us would swallow our pride along with a pill.
          Moving on to a less icky subject, Levitt and Dubner show how “incentives rule our world.” The incentive doesn’t have to be money, but in our culture it normally is. So if you want your children to get better grades, try offering them a big cash incentive for every “A,” and a little less for “B.” Years ago, I did this with my own children, and it sure beat yammering at them daily to do their homework and study. After the first payout, their grades increased dramatically.
          Zappos, the biggest online shoe company, also used an odd incentive to retain competent workers. The business spends a lot of its budget training new employees, who make about $11 an hour. Strangely, after training,  Zappos offers them $2000 to leave, if they will sign a document stating they “surrender their eligibility to be rehired at Zappos.” Read how that panned out, and you’ll understand what the authors mean about incentives working.
          If you’re a writer or public speaker, then Chapter 8 is a must read. In it, Levitt and Dubner outline how to make a persuasive argument. You may have heard the same points in Communications 101, but many of us could use a refresher course in getting our points across, without resorting to name calling or using purely emotional arguments. So whether you’re trying to persuade a relative to start living right, attempting to influence how a project will be completed at work, or are speaking before a Congressional Committee, this chapter is helpful.
          Levitt’s and Dubner’s somewhat bizarre stories are always entertaining and enlightening. And somehow the wacky stories stay with us longer, nudging us to ask questions, and dig deeper into information we once accepted as “facts.” Find out why those Nigerian scam artists aren’t afraid to say they’re from Nigeria. Discover why magicians fear performing before children more than they do adults. Learn the odds of scoring a soccer penalty-goal with a kick “straight down the middle,” and uncover the secrets of a skinny Japanese competitive eater.
          All right, it’s 2015! The future is here. Embrace it by learning how to “Think like a Freak.”

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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