How to Think Like a Freak — and Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions: Full Transcript

[MUSIC: Phil Symonds, “Gipsy Jacks”]

Stephen J. DUBNER: Hey podcast listeners. We have a new book out next week called Think Like a Freak. You can read an excerpt in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal. And then on Sunday at midnight — also known as Monday — the book goes on sale: all stores, all formats. If you want to keep up with what we’re doing in the coming weeks — TV and radio and live talks — go to Freakonomics.com/Events. You can also follow us on Twitter or Facebook. And if you want a free autographed bookplate to stick in your new copy of Think Like a Freak, you can sign up for one of those at Freakonomics.com. Thanks!

[MUSIC: Mike Barresi, “It’s All Good”]

Stephen J. DUBNER: So, Levitt how are you feeling today?

Steve LEVITT: Oh, I am so tired. We had a tiring round of golf yesterday.

DUBNER: When you got home late last night to Chicago, did you find a package there waiting from the publisher?

LEVITT: Nnnn… — yes. (laughs)

DUBNER: (laughs)

LEVITT: Let’s do that one again.

DUBNER: So, Levitt when you got home late last night did you find a package waiting for you from the publisher?

LEVITT: I did.

DUBNER: Did you open it?

LEVITT: No I didn’t actually, because my daughter, Amanda, got to it before I could get to it.

DUBNER: Did she really?

LEVITT: She did. She opened it up.

DUBNER: And?

LEVITT: And she found a bunch of books. And they were called Think Like a Freak and she immediately put it on to Instagram, and one of her 13-year-old friends said I never knew you dad wrote Freakonomics! That’s so cool.

DUBNER: Wow. Did Amanda read any of it yet?

LEVITT: I don’t think she has. She’s read Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, but she has not tackled Think Like a Freak.

DUBNER: I think thirteen-year-olds are pretty much the perfect audience for this book, don’t you?

LEVITT: I think it is. I think ingraining the ideas of thinking the way we do…I mean we’ve always said it was our goal to take over the world, and starting with the 13-year-olds is the right way to do it, don’t you think?

DUBNER: Right, their minds are much more plastic, and we can shape them before…

LEVITT: Yeah, I mean, look at Twilight and Divergent and Harry Potter. If you can get the 13-year-olds, you own everything.

[MUSIC: The Civil Tones, “H is for Harlot” (from Rotisserie Twist)]

[THEME]

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: Steve Levitt is my friend and co-author. He teaches economics at the University of Chicago. In 2005, we wrote Freakonomics. In 2009, SuperFreakonomics. We started this podcast in 2010. And now we’re about to publish our third book, Think Like a Freak.

DUBNER: Hey, so Levitt, so Think Like a Freak is about to come out next week. If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from the writing of this book, what would it be?

LEVITT: I would have to say that we did something very painful but very good in writing that book in that twice we wrote and entire first chapter, thought it was great when we wrote and ended up throwing it in the garbage completely and starting over from scratch. And I think that’s so hard to do. Right? So one of the messages of the book is how people fall prey to what economists call sunk costs, once you’ve invested a lot in something you hang on to it even though it’s not worth anything. And that was good. I was proud of us for doing that, because it would have been so easy to say, okay, it’s not exactly perfect, let’s just keep going. But we literally threw it in the garbage and started over. And that was good.

DUBNER: You know, it’s like what Michelangelo talked about with sculpture. You just take a big hunk of marble and you get rid of all the pieces you don’t want, and what’s left will be pretty good.

LEVITT: Except the problem was we actually had to not just take a hunk of marble, we actually built from scratch a hunk of marble and then we had to hack away at it.

DUBNER: So you’re saying that what we do is harder than what Michelangelo did.

LEVITT: And far more brilliant as well. And certainly I think it will…

DUBNER: Stand the test of time.

LEVITT: Exactly right. Much better than his fly-by-night things.

DUBNER: So is Think Like a Freak more “David” or most Sistine Chapel ceiling, you think? There is a lot of anatomy in it, I will say that.

LEVITT: Probably “David.”

DUBNER: Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking too. Alright, and Levitt, if someone, let’s say someone gets this book, and you know, it’s a different book for us because it’s kind of laying out the rules of thinking, and particularly about solving problems and so on, if there was one rule that you thought it was important for someone to take to heart out of all the things we write about in the book, I’m curious what your one takeaway would be.

LEVITT: Yeah, it’s almost something that we didn’t write in the book, but it’s something that is pervasive in the ethos of the book, which is that even though it is completely and totally obvious that you should think, most people don’t do it. We never even, I don’t think we got around to saying it.

DUBNER: We do say that a little bit. In fact in the first chapter, and then we talk a little bit about George Bernard Shaw noting the same thing almost a hundred years ago.

LEVITT: Yeah you’re exactly right. I think in some ways we have a lot of specific advice, and we have a lot of hints at how we solve problems, but it’s really just the basic idea that most people walk around on autopilot and being reminded, and even we need to be reminded of that all the time. It’s amazing how hard it is to remember the really simple things when you live in a complex world that pulls you in a hundred directions at once.

[MUSIC: The Civil Tones, “Joe Flamingo” (from Soul Bucket)]

DUBNER: So Levitt, some readers and listeners of this podcast have been writing in with questions, some of which are related to the new book, some of which are regular old Freak-quently Asked Questions. Do you feel like answering some, you up for it today?

LEVITT: Yeah, I’m in the mood for that today, actually.

DUBNER: You are? Okay, great. So Alicia Robison writes to says, this is a pretty long one, settle back Levitt, her email is titled “Bacon Fetish,” which how can you not like that email? She writes to say, “I’m sure you have noticed the new society fetish with bacon. Now I’m not sure where and how this happened, but I imagine it spawned from a Reddit-like website.” I like the early hints of conspiracy paranoia in the first couple sentences there. “My question is what are the social/economic/health benefits of all this bacon weirdness? I’m am personally a vegetarian, but I think even to a normal carnivore, some of the hip new bacon infusions and food creations are going a bit over the top. How long until we can gather data about early onset heart disease and heart attacks?” She really turned it there, did you notice that? First it was kind of about bacon taking over as a style, and then immediately “how long until we can gather data about early onset heart disease and heart attacks. What kind of numbers,” she writes, “can we get from the meat processing industries in terms of pork production? Are they feeling the surge? What is the cost on the environment? It takes a lot of water and resources to raise a pig. And most of all,” she writes, “why for the bacon fetish? I have my theories, mainly in the wake of kale smoothies, hipster homesteading, and state mandated soda size reduction.” I don’t know if that actually happened, the state mandated soda size reduction. “Is this simply a grassroot uprising of those who refuse to relinquish their bacon and super-sized Pepsi? Regardless of where it started, it has seemed to infiltrate people from every walk of life, even here in my crunchy Colorado mountain town it’s impossible to walk into the bar and not be faced with bacon infused Bloody Marys or bacon covered waffles at the local breakfast joint. Let’s face it, many trends like tramp stamps and mullets only result in wistful regret of the good old days and photos that are good for a laugh. However, this trend has the potential to do some serious damage. Thanks, Alicia.”

LEVITT: Alright, so that’s a great question. I like it. Alicia has a lot of spunk and that’s a good thing in these questions. So here’s what I would, I have to say as a caveat before I respond to Alicia, because we always say you should put away your moral compass before you start to think about a problem, but I have an incredible personal attachment to bacon and I have had for a long time. One of my first phrases, actually when I was a child was, “Yum, yum bacon.” That was pretty much my watch words when I was a child, because I was mostly denied bacon, but whenever I had the opportunity I would exclaim, “Yum, yum bacon!” and have as much as possible. So that being said let me try to put aside my personal adoration for bacon and answer this question. And it’s interesting, on the health front, as we write in Think Like a Freak, there’s so much confusion in the world about what’s healthy and what’s not healthy. And I can imagine bacon as unhealthy because it’s loaded with all sort so nitrates and things. But we write about how fat has been demonized and how the cutting edge, may cutting edge nutritionists would not deem fat to be bad. Indeed, I mean there are only three ways really to get calories. It’s from fat, it’s from protein, it’s from carbohydrates. And many, many people, at least the smart people that I know have turned against carbohydrates. And so the carbohydrates are the enemy, not fat. So in that sense bacon is a wonderful food because bacon is loaded with fat and doesn’t have carbohydrates. From a social/economic perspective my hunch is that whatever little dribs and drabs of bacon that are being dumped into Bloody Marys compared to the enormous amount of pork which is used for a million things, you know, from bacon at McDonald’s, to the incredibly high per capita consumption of pork in China that nobody is even noticing any impact whatsoever form a production perspective of this bacon fetish that Alicia talked about.

DUBNER: But let me ask you this, what’s interesting about her question is that it’s this series of objections to one thing. Right? So it’s an anti-bacon question, but it has all these different components, each of which operates on a different dimension. So the one is like, it’s like the bacon weirdness. She doesn’t like the fact that bacon has kind of taken over as a thing of desire, right, on many fronts? And then she gets into the health thing and some other things. But I’m curious, you know, she writes, she admits that she’s a vegetarian and then goes on to express concern that all these people are going to regret their bacon intake, that it will be the equivalent of a tramp stamp, although I don’t know how that is; it’s not like you’re marked for life by the bacon you consume when you are young. But I don’t want to rag on Alicia. I’m sure she’s a great person, I do like her question, but when you hear a question like this, pretend it’s not about bacon, pretend it’s a comment on, you know, some new technology like a driverless car, or pretend it about something else that people consume, maybe marijuana versus alcohol, like we did this episode on recently, where do you try to read into the person’s position and their biases and their priors that they’re coming from. And if you want to have a conversation with them and try to persuade them toward something, which is something that we’ve tried to work on these last couple of years, how to persuade people who don’t want to be persuaded, where do you kind of look for an in in something like this?

LEVITT: You know, it’s interesting because what Alicia has done in this question is told a really entertaining story, which almost none of our questions that we answer are entertaining stories. They’re always usually to the point, or maybe they wander around, but I think Alicia has a real gift of the storyteller, don’t you, because she takes us on this ride where you start thinking that maybe she’s kind of a friend of bacon, and in the end she brings you in and she relaxes you and then she turns it into bacon being the enemy of all mankind. So I think with someone like Alicia and bacon, it think there would be no point in trying to persuade her. All I would try to do with Alicia is have some fun and poke a little fun at her tell her how much I love bacon and try to bribe her and see how much it would cost to get her to eat a piece of bacon herself. And from that maybe have an interesting discussion about why she’s a vegetarian. But I don’t know, you and I know that in general trying to persuade people who don’t want to be persuaded is a big mistake. And I think we even write in the book that a lot of times when you have this urge to try to persuade people of things that the best thing to do is to try to take a deep breath and say why do I need to persuade them? What’s my real reason for wanting to persuade them? So I think we should let Alicia lead her bacon…

DUBNER: Bacon hatin’ life.

LEVITT: Bacon-victimized but otherwise happy life.

[MUSIC: Jonathan Geer, “Jinx”]

DUBNER: Coming up on Freakonomics Radio…We take some more listener questions:

LEVITT: I like the way he’s thinking. What do you think?

DUBNER: And…Steve Levitt’s worst nightmare:

LEVITT: There’s something about book tours, which undo me.

[UNDERWRITING]

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

[MUSIC: Danielle French, “Harsh Reality” (from Drive)]

DUBNER: Hey Levitt, here’s a question from Adil Khimani, who is writing, it’s kind of a long question, I won’t read a big chunk of it, but he’s interested in the idea of prestige, and the price of prestige on a number of different fronts, including the fact that he went to a college that he kind of regrets wasn’t a little bit more prestigious, and he’s curious to see how that’s going to works out. But then he has an idea for us. He’s basically giving us an idea to think about and he says this, “What if you guys had a section on your website to get ahold of you, and had perhaps three levels of priority. I’m sure you both field loads of questions on Freakonomics Radio and often skip over some. So with three levels of priority you can institute a cost. VIP questions can be guaranteed to be answered on air, unless extremely inappropriate, but also carry a $10 charge to submit. A second tier of question that may get answered would cost $5, and lastly you could have the good old free model that receive the least of your attention. I know this will turn some people away from the podcast.” I would add if not all — and a desire to ask questions. “But ultimately you guys keep it interesting enough and provide great answers.” I would challenge that as well. “So I think that will the right pricing scheme, you’ll win out. “ Levitt what do you…

LEVITT: What’s this guys name? What’s this guy’s name?

DUBNER: Adil.

LEVITT: What is it?

DUBNER: Adil. A-D-I-L. Adil.

LEVITT: Okay, so the first thing I would say to you Adil is he like many other people in this world needs a quick lesson in pricing. So I think the idea of offering this tiered set of services is really smart. And it is very much the way as we move into a society where there’s a lot of information and there’s an ability to personalize what consumers get, that it is absolutely the way that society is going. Now, in our particular case, I think there are two problems with the plan. First of all, the prices we would want to charge to make it worth our while to distinguish between questions, so to us, the value of having a good question and making the readers, and entertaining the readers, and teaching the readers is a thousand times greater than the amount of money that any reasonable person would ask us to read their question on air. So we actually have a conflict here in that putting out a good show is much more important to us than getting 10 bucks in Adil’s case or $1,000 or $5,000, whatever the number might really be if we wanted to have this kind of deal. But, but I like the way he’s thinking. What do you think?

DUBNER: Yeah, so I agree. I like the way he’s thinking in that tiered pricing makes a lot of sense. And I think we’re actually going to have an episode coming soon on price discrimination and the many versions thereof, which I think will be very interesting. I think though that the conflict is broader than that, which is not only is the pricing wrong in this case, but I think that having any VIP pricing access in a format like this, on a radio show that we put out would really end up being net negative, because it is too exclusionary. Because you know, here’s what it boils down to, it’s a form of payola in this case. So I can see where there are some services or industries where this works perfectly, but I feel like what we’re delivering is not concrete enough or maybe valuable enough to charge anything for. And then if you start to, then it would diminish the whole feel of the thing. That would be my fear is that I wouldn’t want to listen to any show that would have hosts that would do something like that on their show.

LEVITT: Yeah, I mean you make a good point. We talk about changing the frame, that any interaction between humans are defined by the relationship that they have.

DUBNER: Exactly.

LEVITT: And our podcast is defined by a relationship in which we give it away, and we don’t really do this for money. I’m not sure why we do it, but I don’t think it’s for money. It can’t be for money. And so, to then change the frame that this is about money. A more extreme example would be well what if we did podcasts but you only got to hear the first six minutes for free and the last minute of the punch line. You know, you had to pay $3.

DUBNER: Right. Or maybe a slightly less punitive version like you put out a free version and then a premium version, which obviously that happens in a lot of industries. We could put out a 20-minute version every week that’s free and a 45-minute version that costs money. Although I would argue that maybe I would pay more for the shorter version if it was better than the longer version.

LEVITT: Yeah, and I think this is a good case where honestly I don’t know why we do these podcasts, but it’s definitely not for money.

DUBNER: I think I know why we do them. We do them because I want to do them, and then you’re nice enough to do it along with me.

LEVITT: Yeah, so I think for us. I think it’s really true, given that you just do this because you like millions of people to hear your ideas, the concept of polluting that with a monetary motive I think is bad. That’s why I was so completely against the fund drive. I thought that was such a terrible idea, a horrible idea. But anyway. You run the show, so…

DUBNER: Well that was a…But we also have a partner here, which is a public radio station and that’s the way they raise money for the production. And honestly it worked, and you were very wrong, by the way, Levitt.

LEVITT: Because people actually gave money.

DUBNER: Yeah!

LEVITT: But that makes me feel bad, we shouldn’t have taken their money. Why would we take their money, we’re just doing this for fun. It feels horrible to take their money.

DUBNER: Yeah, but it costs money to do it.

LEVITT: That’s true.

LEVITT: But still I think it’s horrible.

[MUSIC: James Shepard, “Pilot Light”]

DUBNER: Hey Levitt, here’s a question from Meredith Summers. “Hello, I wonder if it would be at all possible to quantify in financial terms Steven Levitt’s contribution to the University of Chicago? For example, does his fame bring in more students who hope to work with him and learn from him, and is this contribution commensurate with his salary. Thank you for you time, Meredith.” I love that she assumes that your financial contribution is positive, first of all.

LEVITT: I like people like Meredith, that’s nice. I like the way she thinks. I mean, that’s actually a really interesting question, a hard question, and a good question. I will say that I get paid quite nicely by the University of Chicago and any time I want anything they give it to me. And so the relationship that I have with the University of Chicago is in some ways not really defined as a financial relationship. It’s kind of like a symbiotic thing in which they’re nice enough to let me be here and do whatever I want. And…Well let me give you an example of the craziest thing. At the university, so I happen to be on the intellectual property committee of the university, which is not something that anyone wants to do, but it’s something that occasionally you get tapped on to do if you’re at the university. If you have an invention at the university, while employed at the university, even if it doesn’t have that much to do with your job, the university owns the patent. And they share, relatively generously with you, the rewards, but the intellectual property belongs to the university. So I’m sitting on this committee and I’m thinking about Freakonomics and I suddenly had this feeling that why doesn’t the university own the intellectual property to Freakonomics just because it’s a book and not an invention. And some by historical accident it turns out that if you write a book at a university you own it, but if you do any other intellectual property you don’t own it. It reminded me a lot of the podcast about alcohol versus marijuana. It seems to me completely path-dependent that the university owns the intellectual property to things that you create unless they’re in the form of a book. And I remember sitting in that meeting saying, God, am I glad I write books instead of doing inventions. Because it would be a disaster…

DUBNER: It reminds you of alcohol versus marijuana in that if you were starting over from scratch there’s no way these two would be so different, yes?

LEVITT: Yeah, that you wonder why the two like things are treated so differently and it really, I think, it had to be by change. It couldn’t be that someone really sat down and thought about it and said we really want books to belong to academics, but everything other than books belongs to the university.

DUBNER: Right, so we argue regularly that there are so many accidents of history that are kind of later interpreted to be more logical than they really are. But in this case, maybe you could argue that 100 years ago, or 80 years ago when a university professor was writing a book, most books in the academic sphere weren’t meant to be popular books, weren’t going to be popular books, and therefore they were great promotion for the stature and the status of the university and the professor and therefore served it well, whereas a patent is almost necessarily meant to be a commercial exploitation

LEVITT: So, to that I would say you could argue it but from the university’s perspective you would still say, if you just happened to have Charles Darwin at your university and he happens to write The Origin of Species and sells a zillion copies, why wouldn’t the university try to capitalize on that. It’s very strange to me to me. It’s true that most of what academics do has no value, but that doesn’t to me justify the idea that on the rare occasion where you do something with value, you don’t try to profit from it.

[MUSIC: Pearl Django, “Samois Swing” (from Swing 48)]

DUBNER: So, Levitt, you have any big plans for next week?

LEVITT: I think I’m going to be hanging out with one of my favorite authors, Stephen Dubner, doing a book tour.

DUBNER: So, Think Like a Freak comes out on May 12, and Levitt, talk to me about your frame of mind of those days, say the 10 or 14 days that begin from May 12 and how excited you are about being on book tour and talking endlessly about this thing.

LEVITT: Oh God, you know how I hate book tours. When you told me that we were going to do a 12-day book tour I said, ‘No, you must be confused, that can’t be right.’ And you said it’s in our contract. And I said to myself, ‘My God, I never read contracts because I never think there’s anything either enforceable in them or worth looking at,’ and when you told me that I thought, ‘God why didn’t I read this contract when we signed up to write this book?’ I never would have agreed to a 12-day book tour. Because you know, I don’t know why, but there’s something about book tours, which undo me. I just become dark.

DUBNER: Suicidal.

LEVITT: Something about traveling around and being the center of attention. You know how I hate to be the center of attention.

DUBNER: You say you do, you say you do.

LEVITT: I hate it. I like to be in the shadows. I like to be minding my own business and to have to be on, and to smile, and to pretend like I like people for that long, is so taxing on me.

DUBNER: So let me ask you a correlation-causality question here. You say it’s all that stuff that makes you miserable. Are you sure it’s not just the fact that you have to be with me for 12 straight days?

LEVITT: Well that’s bad, too. But I think it’s…Yeah, that’s probably it. No, you’re right, that’s probably it. It’s probably being with you.

DUBNER: You think you could go do it on your own, you didn’t have Dubner to cloud your mood and you could just go do 12 days across the U.S. and the U.K. that you’d be happy as a clam?

LEVITT: No, actually I have no doubt it would be worse. One of the great things that we’ve worked out is that you love people and I love data so works out great, because when we’re at these book signings that we do, I don’t know if any of you have been to them, but what you’ll see is that Dubner carries on these incredibly witty fun conversations with person after person and all I have to do is smile and sign the book, and it works out great. I love that.

[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound, “Intercontinental Git” (from Destination… Get Down!)]

DUBNER: So if you want to come visit us at one of these signings, check our schedule at Freakonomics.com/Events. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook. We’ll be in New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, L.A., Seattle, and then the Hay Festival in Wales, and in London. Coming up on next week’s podcast… what are the three hardest words in the English language? I love you? You were right? Or how about this:

KID: Uh, I don’t know.

KID: I don’t know.

KID: I don’t know.

LEVITT: I don’t know.

DUBNER: Why learning to say “I don’t know” is one of the best things you can do. That’s next time on Freakonomics Radio.

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