Bring Us Your Questions for the Next Meeting of the Think Like a Freak Book Club

We just released our first installment of the Think Like a Freak Book Club. How does this work? You send in your questions/comments/complaints about the book and we respond in our podcast.

The first installment (“How to Screen Job Applicants, Act Your Age, and Get Your Brain Off Autopilot“) covered Chapters 1-3 of Think. Now it’s time for you to send in questions for Chapters 4, 5, and 6 (see Table of Contents, below). If your question ends up in the podcast, we’ll send you a signed copy of Think Like a Freak or a limited edition Think Like a Freak t-shirt. So fire away!

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You can also pick an item from our swag page, or opt for a Freakonomics Radio t-shirt.


Here’s the Table of Contents for Chapters 4, 5, and 6:

4. Like a Bad Dye Job, the Truth Is in the Roots

A bucket of cash will not cure poverty and a planeload of food will not cure
famine . . . How to find the root cause of a problem . . . Revisiting the abortion-crime link . . . What does Martin Luther have to do with the German economy? . . . How the “Scramble for Africa” created lasting strife . . . Why did slave traders lick the skin of the slaves they bought? . . . Medicine vs. folklore . . . Consider the ulcer . . . The first blockbuster drugs . . . Why did the young doctor swallow a batch of dangerous bacteria? . . . Talk about gastric upset! . . . The universe that lives in our gut . . . The power of poop.

5. Think Like a Child

How to have good ideas . . . The power of thinking small . . . Smarter kids at $15 a pop . . . Don’t be afraid of the obvious . . . 1.6 million of anything is a lot . . . Don’t be seduced by complexity . . . What to look for in a junkyard . . . The human body is just a machine . . . Freaks just want to have fun . . . It is hard to get good at something you don’t like . . . Is a “no-lose lottery” the answer to our low savings rate? . . . Gambling meets charity . . . Why kids figure out magic tricks better than adults . . . “You’d think scientists would be hard to dupe” . . . How to smuggle childlike instincts across the adult border.

6. Like Giving Candy to a Baby

It’s the incentives, stupid! . . . A girl, a bag of candy, and a toilet . . . What financial incentives can and can’t do . . . The giant milk necklace . . . Cash for grades . . . With financial incentives, size matters . . . How to determine someone’s true incentives . . . Riding the herd mentality . . . Why are moral incentives so weak? . . . Let’s
 steal some petrified wood! . . . One of the most radical ideas in the history of philanthropy . . . “The most dysfunctional $300 billion industry in the world” . . . A one-night stand for charitable donors . . . How to change the frame of a relationship . . . Ping-Pong diplomacy and selling shoes . . . “You guys are just the best!” . . . The customer is a human wallet . . . When incentives backfire . . . The “cobra effect” . . . Why treating people with decency is a good idea.


I have a question yet to be answered:

We all know that the family leave policy in the US is one of the worst in the developed world. Are there financial incetives to making it better or is it better to leave it the way it is? (Need for quality and often expensive child care, sleep-deprived parents working, breast feeding, raising well adjusted children, etc.)


I joined the company I currently work for straight out of University, almost 5 years ago. I've really enjoyed working here, learned loads, got promoted a couple times, enjoy the company of my colleagues, even actively like every one of by bosses so far. This is something I never expected to find, and really grateful for the experiences so far.

About 10 months ago, my whole department was made redundant, they made very clear they wanted to keep everyone, and found places for each of us within a few weeks and to date no one from my old department have left.

Besides the forced change in role, I can't quantify any significant change in culture, or other reason to no longer feel motivated. My current role is usually interesting enough, and there are prospects for progression going forward.

My question is around incentives and motivation, how can I incentivise myself to like this company and get motivated again, or what could they do?



Jeff Yancey

Re: Children left in hot cars. Is there any parallel between smartphone usage and this reoccurring tragedy?

It seems every summer there are more reports of children being left in hot cars. The causes and solutions range wildly every year. Smartphones get a great deal of knee-jerk blame right now. - Is there any parallel between smartphone usage and this reoccurring tragedy? Even if so, is there anything to prove a connection? Smartphone usage gets blamed for basically everything these days.
Is this possibly a case of increased media in our lives making these incidents only Appear more common than in the past...Accompanied by our favorite modern scapegoat for negligence, the iPhone?

It's a terribly sad annual topic, and it would be great to hear your thoughts.

Jeff Yancey

Atlanta, GA


You might also consider whether it's due (at least in part) to more cars having better air conditioning (because, after all, the car is not hot while you're driving it), and to laws requiring small kids to ride in the back seat, where it's easier to overlook them.


Incentives: Last week I was intrigued enough by the Think Like a Freak T-shirt to go to make a donation to support Freakonomics Radio. However, the only way to get one is to submit a question. Aren't you incentivizing the wrong thing? Wouldn't you rather get donations (which, BTW, I made anyway and declined the gift) or even have people pay for the T-shirt than have them submit questions? Is the short term bump in publicity better than the long term investment in the podcast? Of course, now I've done both, so maybe it worked after all.


E-cigs are big business. However, they could be much bigger. When I look at an electronic cigarette I can't help but think of Gillettes marketing campaign for their razors. The idea is simple. I send you a razor, you fall in love with it, and I charge you an ungodly amount of money for the refill. Why can't they do that with electronic cigarettes? If you sent every smoker your e-cigarette they would all at LEAST try it. Heck, in some places they aren't regulated like a normal tobacco product so you could sent them to just about anyone. Sending a minor a potentially addictive product would be a GREAT long term investment. As far as I know Blu hasn't done that yet. Why not? Other than the initial investment it doesn't seem to have many downsides. (Maybe the big e-cig companys are just more moral than I am?)

side note: I don't actually know if Gillettes campaign works. It is hard to tell without data from a proper experiment but businesses don't seem to bother with data as you point out so well in your story about the big box retailer and the newspaper inserts.


caleb b

I tend to think toward extreme outliers and actively look for ways to abuse whatever rules are in place to achieve maximum results (i guess it is good that i'm not an accountant). But instead of this being viewed as a strength in the business world, it is viewed as being a shady person. Do you think it is more likely that everyone else ALSO thinks about ways to cheat the system, or is it that by thinking such thoughts, I just signal that I am shady enough to think like a crook? Why isn't being able to think like a crook more valued (at least in my observation)?

Example: I don't want to have to pay a $5,000 hospital bill to have another baby. Not that i'm going to do this, but it seems like a good idea...just have my wife walk into the hospital, refuse to identify herself, and walk out once we have the baby. The hospital isn't going to want to keep the kid, they HAVE to treat her, and if they don't know who to send the bill to, then we can't get billed.

Example 2: I once noticed that a provision in an investment bond allowed assets to be purchased out of the pool from a vote of the highest risk investors (because they had the most to lose)...well in these bonds, the high risk investors (lowest on the totem pole) had been wiped out to zero i figured, why not bribe them to vote to allow me to buy out only the good assets out of the pool. My bosses and all i worked with literally laughed at me because they thought it was such a crazy idea. Two months later, some hedge fund figured it out and did that exact thing...making a fortune.



Correct, you should not be an accountant. You should be a tax lawyer. That's their job.

Raul Silva

Hello guys,

Living in Chicago, I have witnessed my fair share of protests. My question is, do protests really change anything?



Kirsten Pittman

The section on incentives got me thinking. How do we incentivize something that some people perceive they don't need to do, but is essential for society? I'm talking about vaccinating your kids. Despite overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe, and that herd immunity is vitally important to protect babies and those who cannot be vaccinated, alarming numbers of parents ignore science and refuse to vaccinate, which has led to outbreaks of measles, whooping cough.. And of course, hospitalizations and death.


I take high school student groups on study tours to foreign countries and work at residential foreign language camps on US college campuses and overseas. The liability for our organization, and the adults who work here, is huge. Trying to keep students in their rooms at night and getting to follow rules, in general, is no small feat.
What incentives do you think would work to persuade students to follow the rules instead of sneaking out to hang out with friends, drink beer, or plan a romantic rendezvous?
Why does our society put so much legal responsibility on the adults who are chaperoning the students, even when students are putting themselves at risk by breaking the rules? That is one of the main reasons we are so strict with minors (other than generally keeping them safe and their parents at ease), but try explaining that to them.
...Maybe you should be asking me what incentives there are that make me and my colleague agree to do this impossible job?! I guess we just assume nothing really bad is going to happen, because if I REALLY think about it, it's not worth the risk!
I'd love to hear your thoughts. And I love your podcast. Thank you!


Sam Naylor

It is hard to get good at something you don't like...

Well of course it is! I found this out myself and it has really helped me pursue and focus on improving activities in which I enjoy doing, instead of wasting time futilely trying to learn something I hate. And luckily for work I love what I do as well, but it seems not all people do. In fact it seems from TV, Movies, and media that the trope is to hate your job, and 'work towards the weekend'. Now if we want a more productive, innovative, and inspired workforce everyone would do what they love right? Or at least find love in what they do...well why don't they?

If I were to dig a little deeper...why isn't everyone in a position or have a career in which they find joy and passion? Is there just too little 'fun' jobs to be had by everyone? are we destined as a human race to have ~60% of our work force be just having a 'job' instead of pursuing their vocation. Why can't all people enjoy the passion and energy for work like artists do? or should they?

Perhaps only some of us were lucky enough to find the thing we have passion for? And/Or perhaps societal values pressure people away from a vocation into a more 'real' job. Or maybe we all need to learn how to 'quit' and find what we do love doing, just like you both did.

the short version :: In a perfect world is it possible to match up all people with their respective passions and produce a much more productive society, or are are some people, always, going to be doomed to a job they hate.



I just wondering. Theres this fundraiser type of thing for polio, i believe. Theyre name was march of dimes. Anyhow, they send out letters to people asking for donations.. Seeing this, I thought of your book (which i had just recently finished reading). Your book talked about how the incentive of never having to hear from them again drew them in. Also drawing more attention to them, just because they offered such a thing, and it was out of the norm. But i noticed they put a dime on it. Having just read your book, i wondered wether having a dime on there would effect who responded. The letter askes you to return the dime to them, along with a gift of money. I noticed the dime, and it caught my attention. So what is their angle their i guess?

Narahari Rao


I have the following question for you guys:

In a typical classroom, there are some really clever students who need little information to understand the entire concept. And then you have the average performers who with some assistance/ homeworks/ quizzes can be pushed to achieve good success. Finally, we have the not-so bright students (who for whatever reasons) may not have the intellect to grasp on to a concept (s).

As a teacher, where should the focus lie? Should the teaching be oriented to suit the lower percentile of kids? Will that not deprive the average/ clever students? The converse strategy is detrimental to the lower percentile kids. Could there be an economic incentive (apart from a moral imperative) for a teacher to ensure that his/her teaching caters to all classes of students?

Note: This question can be expanded to a society where the teacher is the government and the citizens are its students.

I have always wondered about this analogy. Your input will be appreciated.

Narahari Rao



In your chapter about "Thinking Like a Child" you advise against thinking about big problems. Yet big problems abound. How would you break a big problem, for example immigration reform, down into solvable problems? In the case of immigration reform, I don't feel like either side has a solid grasp on what the underlying cause is, so proposed solutions are focused on symptoms and driven by conventional wisdom. Are there any good studies out there derived from natural experiments (i.e. policy changes different countries have made)? The fundamental cause is really uneven economic opportunities, so is there anything to be done? Put another way, what solvable problems could be identified to start addressing the larger problem?


As I see it, current congressional gridlock makes perfect sense if you can trace it to its root cause; electoral incentives stemming from districts dominated by one party and an extremely polarized primary electorate. By convincing more moderate people it is in their best interest to vote in the primary of the predominant party in his or her congressional district, we can enable more pragmatic candidates to win their party primary and ultimately be elected into congress, leading to a less gridlocked legislature. I know Levitt is a voting skeptic, but in low turnout primary elections a small number of voters can really make a significant difference. Do you have any suggestions for what to do to change the incentive structure to get moderate voters to vote in primary elections?

Alexis Roizen

I have a question... I am curious why you guys chose to give away a signed copy of your book to the people submitting questions to your book club fan base. I am an avid listener (and slight groupie... I saw your Seattle leg of the book tour, hilarious and well worth the 5-hour drive). Since I'm a fan, I already have the book and if my question got chosen, I'd have two copies. I know that you give away other swag as well, but I find it interesting that you lead with the signed copy as a teaser for people that I assume already own the pages.


As you mention in the book, Americans are known for spending rather than saving. That's why the 401K program is a good idea since the savings is automatic. My company has a 401K, but gave up the matching contribution during the economic downturn. I understood the need for that reduction, but now things are better and the employees are earning cash bonuses every year. From my perspective, it seems like re-instituting the matching is logical since the company has the money and the employee saves much more by getting it pre-tax rather than cash which is taxed at a high rate (20%-30% more). I have asked for explanations on this but the only one I get is "well, people are strapped these days and probably need the cash more than savings". Is there any good way to convince our owners that we should be incentivizing the savers, who are in my opinion the more responsible workers? I have done an informal poll in my local industry and most companies are back to matching, which means we are also lagging in the benefits we offer to get good people.

As I think hard about this, the critical side of me sees an incentive for the owners to not put the money into the 401K match. If that money is used in the matching, less cash will be available in the pool for bonus distribution, which is skewed towards the larger shareholders (and rightly so, since most worked very hard to get where they are).

BTW, I love the PLS idea! Wish I could figure out a way to get our young people saving by setting something up like that.



Dylan Singfield

In supermarkets and other shops, there are many deals such as "buy one get one free" etc. These are usually incentives for people to buy more of the product. Often, it's more than we need; my family often discard food items that we buy too much of in a deal. I wonder who really gets the most out of these 'deals' and are they incentives worth taking?