Think Like a Child: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo: VA State Parks Staff)

(Photo: VA State Parks Staff)

Our latest podcast is called “Think Like a Child.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) Why would anyone want to think like a child? Aren’t kids just sloppy, inchoate versions of us, who can’t even say “I Don’t Know”?

Hardly. As Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt describe in their new book, Think Like a Freak, thinking like a child can be very fruitful.

 LEVITT: I think the beauty of thinking like a child … is that sometimes doing things differently and simply and with a kind of joy and triviality leads you to a really special place that as an adult you don’t get to go to very often.

Kids are relatively unbiased; they don’t carry around many of the pre-conceptions that adults do. And, as we all know, kids don’t “pay attention” the same way that adults do. This makes them more likely to notice or care about things that the rest of us don’t — and, if you happen to be a magician, it makes them a hard audience to fool. In the podcast, you’ll hear from journalist and magician Alex Stone, author of Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind. We brought Stone down to WNYC to perform for a room full of middle-schoolers from I.S. 318 in Brooklyn (thanks, guys!). You’ll hear the results and you’ll hear Stone dissect what happened:

 STONE: [Adults] watch it and they’re waiting for the punch line, and then they sort of see it, and then they maybe go back and think about it. With kids, you get this sense that with every step of the way they’re trying to understand it. From the second they see it, they’re always coming up with theories.

You’ll also hear from Alison Gopnik, who has done fascinating research on children’s cognitive processes and development. Gopnik is a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California-Berkeley and the author of The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. Gopnik describes how modern research shows that kids are much more than just underdeveloped adults, and that they have a variety of traits we’d do well to smuggle across the border into adulthood:

GOPNIK: Think of the kids as being the research and development division of the human species. And we’re—adults—we’re production and marketing. So from the production and marketing perspective, it might look like the R&D guys are really not doing anything that looks very sensible or useful. They sit around all day in their beanbag chairs playing Pong and having blue-sky ideas. And we poor production and marketing people, who are actually making the profits, have to subsidize these guys! But of course, one of the things that we know is that that kind of blue-sky, just pure, research actually pays off in the long run.

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  1. Fabrizio Bianchi says:

    Will the book club answers be stand alone episodes?

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  2. Cyril Morong says:

    The NY Times had an article about Alison Gopnik and The Philosophical Baby back in 2009.

    What most caught my attention was the following passage: “A recurring theme of Gopnik’s is the idea that playful immersion in freely conjured hypothetical worlds is what teaches us how to make sense of the real one. She describes, for instance, how small children’s grasp of “counterfactual” situations enables them to calculate the probabilities of alternative courses of action.”

    Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman wrote something very similar in Slate magazine in 1997. It was “You can’t do serious economics unless you are willing to be playful. Economic theory is…is a menagerie of thought experiments–parables…you must play with those ideas in hypothetical settings. Innovative thinkers, in economics and other disciplines, often have a pronounced whimsical streak.”

    Krugman also mentioned how some writers can take their subject “too seriously to play intellectual games. To test-drive an idea with seemingly trivial thought experiments, with hypothetical stories about simplified economies.”

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  3. Cyril Morong says:

    Here is what Carl Rollyson wrote about Richard Feynman back in 2011 in the WSJ

    “Take Feynman’s desire to understand how electrons can behave as particles, as waves and as both, all at the same time—and can even be in two different places at once. Such behavior is not possible according to classical physics, but quantum mechanics suggest that it is. Feynman may have understood such logic—at least in part—because he retained a child-like quality, a sense of play, throughout his life. In a child’s world you can be here and elsewhere at the same time—in Kansas and with the Wizard of Oz.”

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  4. Dexter says:

    Hey guys, just listened to the podcast. Most of the content sat quite agreeable with me, like the tendency of kids to look up and wave to a balcony. One thing though. Is it misleading that Stones magic show was presented to a large group of children with few adults present, or was this accounted for?

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  5. John Arnold says:

    I think the “Think Like A Freak” book’s penalty kick scenario is a bit off base. The penalty kick situation for the win isn’t nearly as fraught with failure as you portray. A missed kick given your circumstance actually sustains the tie score. The real tense situation that confronts the kicker is the kick that attains the tie this is the one that might have the most likely result of not wishing to create an easy stop with a kick to the center of the goal and the possible ensuing shame. The other scenario for the win actually allows more freedom for the kicker since the worst result at that point is a tie and continued play.

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  6. Louis Kramberg says:

    I’ve often used this example to show that kids can see the obvious while adults often do not:

    Imagine a racetrack that is a very large perfect square. The driver is riding at a constant speed so that it should take just as long to ride each of the 4 sides. It takes eighty minutes to complete the first side, eighty minutes to complete the second side, eighty minutes for the third side, but one hour and twenty minutes to complete the fourth side. Why? The answer is in the next paragraph.

    I’ve tried this with young kids (9-13) and they usually see the answer as being obvious while most adults (some with doctorates) give up. Kids think of one hour and twenty minutes as eighty minutes while adults usually hear “one hour and twenty minutes” and think “one hundred and twenty minutes”. Try this with some adults and some kids and see what happens.

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    • Kevin says:

      As an adult, I was fooled by your problem! I don’t think it’s a matter of adults thinking of it as 120 minutes so much as adults not thinking of that aspect of the problem. The phrasing leads you to believe that 1 hour 20 minutes is longer than 80 minutes, so you just assume that. Immediately my brain started working to figure out how one side could take longer than the others when traveled at the same speed. I think what this problem gets at is that children are more likely to question the very parameters and definitions of a problem.

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    • James says:

      Notice, though, that this is a trap created by misuse of language. Saying ‘but’ implies that the time taken for the fourth side is different.

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    • NZ says:

      Reminds me of Daniel Kahneman’s “gotcha” style research in “Thinking Fast and Slow.”

      It’s like the plane crash riddle, the one ending with “where did they bury the survivors?”

      I first got stumped by that one when I was about 7 years old. It was actually a popular riddle among my fellow first- and second-graders because of how often it stumped the person you asked it to.

      I’ve since found a few adults who hadn’t heard it, and it stumped far fewer of them.

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  7. Jesse says:

    Frankly, I’m not a fan of this child supremacy. Children are pretty annoying people. They are selfish. They bully other children. They are overly emotional.

    Beyond a child’s ability to learn languages and their mentally retarded enjoyment of simple things, I do not want to think like a child.

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  8. NZ says:

    Research showing that kids are about as smart as you’d expect them to be wouldn’t get much funding or attention from publishers.

    On top of that, we live in an era of gerophobia, in which we long to believe that increasing age is correlated not with experience and wisdom, but with entrenched old-fashionedness and stubborn backwardness.

    That way we don’t feel as bad when we chuck our elderly into nursing homes and say stuff like “I can’t wait till they all die off, then there won’t be any racists and homophobes left.” That way we also don’t feel as bad when we keep acting like children well into our 20s, 30s, and even later.

    So, if kids are so bright and clever and innovative, why do we support bans on child labor?

    If Gopnik & Friends are right, kids would be a huge benefit to any ACTUAL r&d department, to say nothing of countless other lines of work. Besides, according to this research kids must surely be perceptive enough to see when an exploitative employer is trying to take advantage of them.

    Finally, what’s up with Gretta Cohn’s use of the phrase “traits we’d do well to smuggle across the border into adulthood”? She’s been tasked with showing that maintaining a childlike mind into adulthood is a good thing, but via a very poor analogy she equates doing so with smuggling–a serious crime!

    If the analogy were to continue, then childhood is a permanent state whose residents are adjacent to, but will not normally enter, adulthood, while residents of the permanent state of adulthood normally have nothing to do with residents of their neighbor state, childhood.

    In fact, far too many adults maintain mountains of traits smuggled in from childhood–enough to form whole childish personalities. Adulthood’s customs procedures are failing us, if we can even be said to have any.

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    • James says:

      Smuggling a serious crime? Depends on who you ask: I’d wager that a significant fraction of the population would consider it a laudable activity!

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