Can You Be Too Smart for Your Own Good? And Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Listen now:

Our latest podcast is called “Can You Be Too Smart for Your Own Good? And Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

In this episode Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner field questions from podcast listeners and blog readers. (You can listen to earlier FAQ episodes here, here, here, here and here.) In this installment, they talk about circadian rhythms (no, not cicada rhythms) and whether modern life is killing us; the incentives for curing cancer; if you can be too smart for your own good — which leads to a discussion of marriage markets and autism; whether legalizing gay marriage would affect the economy; and why people can be trusted to pay for bagels but not for music.

Once again, thanks for all of the great questions. As Levitt has said before, he really loves doing these FAQs, because …

LEVITT: The questions we get are so strange that you never could have made them up. 

Keep ’em coming!


Yes, you can be too smart for your own good. Consider the expert who had deeply studied a subject. When asked the chances of X happening, he/she knows that there are so many variables that come into play...that a clear answer cannot be given. The, um, less smart person, not knowing or caring about all the variables, makes a much bolder prediction. Not only does he/she look better for boldness, but if right, they are exalted.

You can be too ethical for your own good. The boss asks you a question. You have no idea. Being honest, you say, "I have no idea." The other person, having so such scruples, says, "Yes, the answer is X." Two days later, it is found that the answer was NOT X, but that doesn't matter. The other person has already galloped away with the bosses award for being a "go get 'em" person. In a nutshell, bosses prefer DECISIVENESS over honesty or even accuracy. What matters is that you SOUND certain.



Kudos to Steve Levitt for pointing out the ineffectiveness of Keynesian economics! Why hasn't this been brought up more? Governments all over the world are following this nonsense and have created a race to the bottom in terms of fiat currency. Please teach the world about other economic theories (Austrian, Monetarist, Chicago) so they can decide for themselves instead of swallowing the spoonfed Keynesian garbage taught at most of our universities.


I thought Steve Levitt's comments on supply side versus demand side economics were shocking. He did exactly what this podcast is trying to prevent: presented some "common sense" arguments that seem "logical" and are swallowed up because they seem 'intuitive' and are 'common knowledge'.... I thought the whole point of this podcast was to look at empirical evidence and that often this shows that all these appeals to common sense are often wrong. The fact he is from the Chicago school simply makes it worse, sounding like he is just following the crowd...

The fact is, there is mounting evidence that supply side economics breaks down in exactly the conditions we have now...

Please, if you are going to comment on these things, apply the same rigour and attention to evidence as you do to your other topics!!


True, he explained the logic of his position but did not get into any empirical evidence. However, you have done the same by claiming that supply side economics has resulted in the current economic conditions. Could you please provide evidence of that?

Also, what do you mean by "following the crowd"? What crowd are you referring to? I bet 99% of the population has no idea what the Chicago School is or have even heard of it. If you ask any lay person on the street to explain economics, I would bet you a large amount that it would sound something like demand side economics because that's what they're indoctrinated with in our public schools. If I have made a mistake in understanding your position, I welcome your correction.

We can debate for a long time about which theory is better but I welcome any Keynesian to answer this question: Which comes first, consumption or production?


Highly educated woman traditionally have the lowest marriage rate - paying the price or being smart enough to spot a social arrangement skewed unfavourably for women?

Without needing a man to own property or provide sustenance and a livelihood, the attraction of marriage for educated women is diluted.

Steve Cebalt

This data (link below) doesn't directly answer the question of "Smart/Good," but the data did contradict my own opinion. I know I am not too smart for my own good, thank goodness, that is one problem I don't have to struggle with :) But I am too sexy for my shirt (Right Said Fred, 1992).

The data:

Happiness is significantly associated with IQ, according to this study of more than 6,000 people. I would have thought otherwise. I think it depends on how you define "Smart," how you define "for your own good" and the context of whether the person's intelligence provides utility (money and satisfaction) in their job or not -- whether they work at a high level in their chosen field.

I think Einstein would by unhappy working at McDonald's. I could be wrong.

Certainly being smart or even just well-read makes one a social outlier, able and desirous of talking about things that peers do no relate to nor care to hear about.


Stephen Siebenaler

In your latest podcast, Levitt spoke of gaining time by being more productive. The example was making the same amount of wallets in 4 hours compared to 8 and then being able to use that new found time for leisure activities.

A more realistic example would have to include that person (unless self-employed or otherwise unfettered with profit motives) would be required to go ahead and work the full 8 hours and double the output for the business to sell. The business would benefit from the productivity and likely would not give someone extra time off without docking their pay for that other 4 hours not worked.

What I'm trying to focus on is the inherent selfishness of capitalism and every capitalist business having the incentive to be selfish within the laws that are enforced to force them to treat their workers with a defined level of humanity. Given the tax loopholes, artificial intelligence (robots and software) replacing people and the irresponsible mortgage granting of the past, would you say selfishness is the prime incentive our way of life is based on?



Why is it more selfish for the business owners to want more profit than for the workers to want more leisure time? Seems to me it's just a question of whose selfishness prevails. If the argument is about what's right, who deserves what, then if the capitalists made the higher productivity possible surely they deserve the larger share since their contribution is the essential one, the one which could less easily be replaced. Not all the parts of an organism or a mechanism are equally important to it's function. Capitalism has many moral faults but these are mainly a matter of people trying to manipulate markets not the fundamental justice of who gets what they deserve. The problem is when most people get what they deserve it isn't enough for them to live on. So what's needed is a workable mechanism for people to get enough even though they don't really deserve it, not to get what they


When I phoned the helpline for assistance on installing the alarm on my car the man asked if I were a teacher or a doctor. (Teacher). It's always the clever ones who have the problems, he said, other people just do it. Something amiss there surely?

steve cebalt

Jon, that's funny that he nailed your occupation :). It illustrates what I said about the "smart" question being poorly defined and needful of context. I hire a handyman to do everything because I am inept and ignortant of all things handy-manish. The man can barely read and never looks at a manual, but he can fix plumbling, electrical, install windows, and do anything I've ever called him for; he's a genius. I'd have called him to install the car alarm :) "Everybody is smart at something."


Our son was diagnosed with high-functioning autism at UCLA. The then director of the Autism Evaluation Clinic said that, more and more, they were attributing diagnoses of autism to nerds' mating. I'm sure there's more to it, but that's stuck with me since I heard it, in 2001.

Too Smart

AS far as I can see, one can never be too smart. I walk out of a store and always walk the wrong way. It may well be a form of autism. My mind works that way and pretty much, I walk backwards and then once I figure out the foreward part, go right with it . Knowing that about myself only means, I need to take the time to work it out. (i.e., the direction) And so it goes.

As far as the "good" part. That is the icing on the cake of knowing what you are doing. I wonder how many people really know what they are doing and why?

Steve Cebalt

Hi Too Smart! You noted: As far as the “good” part. That is the icing on the cake of knowing what you are doing. I wonder how many people really know what they are doing and why?

I think smart people are LESS inclined to "know what they are doing." Too distracted by theoretical thoughts and philosophy. A guy in a factory griniding out widgets knows what he's doing; making widgets to feed his family. Not hard to understand that at all. Conversely, I know really smart people who could not find water if they fell out of a boat. Their smartness does not convert to any utility.

Poeple come in all flavors, and of course many smart people DO know what they are doing. But no more than anyone eslse.


Despite the disclaimer that you were pontificating about areas outside of your expertise, one comment struck me as particularly disprovable. Steve Levitt said that particular pharma companies have "zero control" over the kind of research done by cancer researchers around the world. But don't these companies in fact sponsor particular studies and clinical trials, lobby congress, wine and dine doctors and researchers, sponsor academic conferences, advertise, etc. etc.? These things strike me as efforts to exert control, and I don't see why these companies would engage in these activities if they felt they would not contribute to profits.