Me a Celebrity? Let’s Test That with an Experiment.

I’m curious who is standing out in Times Square asking people if they know who I am. I am even more skeptical than Dubner regarding the methodology in his post below. Four out of ten? Forget about it.

Just for fun, how about we do an experiment. I will give $100 (or all the money I have in my wallet if it is less than $100) to any stranger who identifies me spontaneously in the next 30 days without some obvious clue (e.g me wearing a name tag or signing Freakonomics book plates). The U. of Chicago campus area is excluded, since people know me there just because I am a professor.

Any reader bets on the over/under for how much money will flow from me to my fans?

I have my own prediction. I told it to Dubner so he has it on record. I’ll report back in a month with my prediction and the actual figure.

One guy who really is a celebrity is Phil Gordon, host of Celebrity Poker, who I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with last week. He couldn’t take two steps without being greeted by fans. He has got some great stuff in the works, including a line of really innovative instructional videos at, tireless fundraising efforts to help fight cancer, and plans to win his first WSOP bracelet this summer. Plus he is an extremely nice guy. Smart too.


Does it count if a stranger overhears another stranger talking to you and then mimics him or her?

I guess it should, so I'm guessing $200.


I'm doubt that the number of people who recognize a person's name and the number who recognize that person's face are highly correlated. I am no doubt part of the supposed 40%, but wouldn't recognize you if I saw you. I suppose you've probably been on TV, but I and probably a good portion of the Freakonomics-reading population don't watch much TV.

tim in tampa

That's interesting that you met Gordon. I'm trying to score an interview with him for my dissertation (which is on professional poker players/writers.)

I am looking forward to the results!


I have to agree with Collopy. The real test would be introducing yourself to someone without telling them what you do and see if they recognize your name. There's a difference between a media celeb and an author celeb.


Fox on the run! I'll definitely be looking for you at my grocery store here in San Bernardino CA.

Thirty days--- he's an introvert so how much time out among the unwashed masses? Still, I bet Levitt kisses a couple grand bye-bye if he keeps his wallet stocked.


>"Does it count if a stranger overhears >another stranger talking to you and
>then mimics him or her?"
No problem, wallet is empty by then.

Fortunately, the only people who will have any monetary incentive will be readers of this blog -- IF they are also strangers.

Also fortunately, the most Levitt can lose (unless he fills his wallet back up again every time he is spotted) is 30 days * $100 = $3000. So I'm guessing $500.

Ken D.

I would guess that you will run into problems with some people who learn of the offer, know you will be nearby for a publicized event, and make it their business to be on the lookout. As to "just plain recognize", not many. I am obviously a fan and have seen you on TV a couple of times, but I have no great confidence that I would spot you if we passed at random in an airport. Get yourself hired for a national TV commercial or two and that will change.


Though I really like this idea, I don't think it will be a good indicator of how many people recognize you. Let's suppose that there are 1 million Americans that would recognize you if they saw you. What percentage of that 1 million are aware of this 100$ contest, and therefore are going to speak to you to claim their prize? My guess is that the vast majority of the people that recognize you haven't read this particular blog entry, and like me, aren't the type to bother a (quasi) celebrity for an autograph or photo op just because they spot them in public.

Steven D. Levitt

John.34 --

Someone does not have to be aware of the contest to win. All they have to do is recognize and approach me.

To all - I know there is a difference between recognizing someone's name and their face. What is interesting to me is that even after an hour on 20/20, the Daily Show, Today Show, Good Morning America, Charlie Rose, 700 Club, O'Reilly Factor, etc. No one ever recognizes me. Which is great.


Steven D. Levitt-

If you want to be recognized, then you should do a "Freakonomics" TV show (model it kind of after "Myth Busters", except you would do it on economics). That would get you recognized.

The problem is people don't get to see you often enough to recognize you. I have seen you on the "Today Show" and I have see the photos of you on your U of C webpage, but I am still not sure I could recognize you if I walked by you in a mall or airport.

I am telling you, if you want to be recognized, do a TV show. Of course, this is assuming that you want to be recognized all the time while you are walking on the street.


Reminds me of this story: 'Recently, (the painter, Andrew Wyeth) said, a police officer tapped on his car window, wondering what he was doing. The exchange went something like this, Wyeth recalled: "I told him, 'I'm making a drawing of a house over there.' And he said, 'Who do you think you are? Andrew Wyeth?'"'

Aren't The Daily Show's interviews about 4 minutes? Not very long to retain distinguishing features of a gentleman with brown hair and medium build? Get tattoos, I say.

Also, I think john.34's point was, the type of geeks who would recognize an economist by face might not be the types to stop someone on the street and ask for an autograph anyway (unless they knew money was on the line). Geeks are shy!


Talk about Asymmetrical Information! (thought I'd give Jane Galt a plug)

Assuming some level of recognition (and I would guess the name is MUCH more recognized than the face!), the determining factor would be how much money gets put into the wallet (and how much time he spends in the "target" zone off campus).

Sir, don't ask me to post a bet against any personal friends that know your habits. Monetary loss can be held to as low an amount as desired.


Unless you're planning on being in Huntsville, Alabama sometime within the next 30 days, I'm not likely to be getting any money from you.

Of course, even for those who happen to bump into you wherever you are, you could always just leave your wallet empty of any cash. Then, if anyone recognized you, you wouldn't have to pay out anything.


Bad News Dr. Levitt: I live in Chicago, I've seen you on BookTV, and I will accept a personal check (Any Econ professor would be shrewd enough to have an empty wallet, and possibly a full money-clip in the other pocket).

A guy like Gladwell may be more famous in name, but also much more distinctive hair-wise.


I'm trying to put the hurt on your wallet by posting this to Digg, but only 7 diggs so far.

I hope I see you owe me $100 in marketing fees!



You need to clarify the rules. Are you going to alter your behaviour (eg, hiding)? Are you going to refill the wallet? Are you putting a stop limit on how much you pay? What if it's more than you make? :)

Steven D. Levitt

Davidzet and others --

I am not hiding at all. There will be ample chance for people to spot me all over the country. Since the challenge was issued I have already been to Minneapolis, Vancouver, and Seattle. I spent the day at the beach with my four kids in Chicago. No one has recognized me so far.

In the next month I expect to visit DC, San Francisco, and Boston at least, so look for me.

I took $300 out of the bank yesterday so I am prepared for at least the first three people who identify me.

If suddenly I become the Angela Jolie of economics and can't leave the house without being recognized, I might put a stop limit, but I do not anticipate that being necessary.

Rather, my plan is to let the contest run as long as it takes for one person to recognize me, which may take years.


Steve L. - You obviously do not read People or watch Access Hollywood. It's Angelina Jolie. Not Angela Jolie.


o, kidaults' game, fun enough. I bet you will lose none of your cash in the 30 days. Imagine that 10 guys happened rarely to recognize you on the street, would 1 out of them come to you for the money?

And I am waiting for your result.


I wish I knew what you looked like.