How to Screen Job Applicants, Act Your Age, and Get Your Brain Off Autopilot (Ep. 172)

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Think-Like-a-Freak 3D smallThis week’s episode is the first installment of our Think Like a Freak Book Club (we plan to do three). It’s called “How to Screen Job Applicants, Act Your Age, and Get Your Brain Off Autopilot.” (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.)

Here’s how the Think Like a Freak Book Club works: readers and listeners send in their questions about specific chapters of the book, and Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt answer them on the podcast. This episode covers chapters 1-3: “What Does It Mean to Think Like a Freak?”; “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language”; “What’s Your Problem?” You all sent in some really great questions. Among the ones that Dubner and Levitt take on in the podcast:

  • How can I get my brain off auto-pilot?
  • Why are most companies so resistant to change?
  • Has there ever been a society that succeeded in putting the collective above the individual?

And this one: “What kind of question should you ask job candidates to see if they’re too prone to b.s.-ing?” As you’ll hear in the podcast:

LEVITT: I would say what the interviewer’s going to have for lunch that day. Because it’s completely stupid.

DUBNER: That’s pretty good. And totally unanswerable.

Thanks to everyone for the questions. If yours was used in the podcast, we’ll send you your choice of an autographed copy of Think Like a Freak or a limited edition Think Like a Freak t-shirt.

And now it’s time to send in your questions for the next Book Club episode. You can either leave them in the comments section below or e-mail them to radio (at) The next episode will cover chapters 4-6: “Like a Bad Dye Job, the Truth Is in the Roots”; “Think Like a Child”; and “Like Giving Candy to a Baby.” Thanks in advance.

Garrett Moffitt

I was surprised to here both of you fall into the people are living a lot longer myth.
While you address that it's gone up form birth, but the question wasn't about birth it was about retirement.
The average life expectancy for people who make it to 65 is abut 16 years. in 1940 it was about 13 years. So just 3 years, give or take. Life expectancy at birth doubles, but post retirement age goes up a few years.


I think your problem here is in taking an average, where it's really (at least from my limited observation) a bimodal distribution. You have a fraction of the population who exercise, maintain a healthy weight, &c, and so tend to stay healthy to a greater age than previous generations. But counterbalancing this is another fraction who don't exercise and are overweight, suffer all the consequences of that lifestyle, and so die much earlier.


Enjoyed the podcast, which brought to mind a scholarly article in the June 2014 The American Scholar magazine on the fallacies, dating back to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, about dependent generations.

Turns out --shades of your discussion about how hard it is to get good data-- that the US Government and certain political groups have been using data based on Smith’s assumptions about worker to dependency ratio, not updated since 1901.

In fact, using modern demographic data that takes into account not only increases in lifespan but also advances in longer working lives, quality of life, healthcare, and independence of the elderly, that Social Security and Medicare will be stretched when the last baby boomer turns 65, but not bankrupt and not even broken, particularly if certain commonsense adjustments are made.

This article also has a very good discussion on the importance of interdependency on generations in developing strong societies, not to mention that such interdependence is baked into the preamble of the Constitution.

The June edition just went “free” on the internet:

American Scholar: The Fear Factor -



This is a question I have been dying to ask you guys ever since the Newsweek article came out.
So here goes..
I'm going to start off with a relatively radical thought --
If we had vaccines to prevent cancer, would everyone line up to get them? Or would it be met with major animosity ?
My guess is most people would get a vaccine to prevent cancer, (if there was one) because the fear of cancer seems greater than a vaccine. So my question is why would most parents jump to vaccinate against cancer BUT NOT polio, MMR and other vaccinations of diseases making a resurgence again today?
It seems blatantly irrational that people are more openminded to vaccinating to noncontagious things like cancer as opposed to contagious and potentially fatal others diseases we have vaccines for.

Yes not everyone dies from measles, mumps, tetanus, pertussis and polio etc. But not everyone dies from cancer either. But there was a time that they were feared like cancer is now because of the pain and death they caused.
Lastly, this is based on a true story, of the fine line between human rights and murder. You and your unvaccinated daughter travel to Switzerland and she catches the measles. When you arrive back in the USA you take her to the pediatrician. In the waiting room there are 3 infants (unvaccinated because they aren't able to get MMR vaccinations until they are 12-15months old). Two of the infants end up in the ICU and one dies. Where does your human right to not vaccinate your kids become more important than the lives of other people's infants? Could you live with a murder charge or the guilt? Is there a greater good? Or is the human rights aspect of being an American come with strings attached... That someone else's rights may impede on your own right to life.


Enter your name...

Is this a single vaccination for all cancers?

I think that vaccination uptake will improve when babies stop crying when they get them. I suspect that the parents' personal emotional experience matters more for typical vaccine-refusers than the actual health issues.


Actually, I think most parents who don't vaccinate do not care about "baby pain" from a needle prick. I think they are increadibly suspicious that there is some sort of conspiracy (governmental or pharmacological) behind vaccines. And some of them are just "convinced" to the point that nothing will change their minds that the vaccination will harm their baby medically (like that vaccines cause autism, which has been totally debunked).

Plenty of these parents have no trouble spanking thier children.


I have been working as a consultant for an utility company for the past three years. two months ago, a permanent position became available and I applied for it. During my interview, my supervisor asked me a technical question concerning a concept I work with everyday... I could not articulate a proper answer and end up rolling my eyes saying: "I don't know."
later on, he asked me another question to which the answer was in three parts. I gave the first two and got stuck for the last one... when my supervisor said:"and..." I replied: "if you tell me, I'll be able to answer you."
I got the job... I think he was able to put aside my obvious inability to answer to his question and instead focused on my ability to have the job done.

Éva Szeli

I love your podcast, but I was a bit surprised by Dr Levitt's response to Andrea's question, early in the broadcast.

My question is a simple one: would your answer (below) have been the same if it had been a male listener asking the question?

"...when you have quiet time when you’re doing laundry or you’re trying to rock a baby to sleep or something like that, then take those moments..."


I'm a man and I enjoy the time I spend doing laundry and thinking. Men also rock babies. Other examples of man quiet time include bath time, doing dishes and while cleaning the bathroom. Deep thinking and saws, guns, cars up on jacks, and lawn mowing don't go together real well.


Good point: some of us men do our own laundry, and other household chores.

I'm curious, though, as to why Levitt thinks doing laundry takes significant time. I mean, I pick up the dirty clothes, put them in the washer, add detergent, and press the buttons. Later I take the clothes out and hang them on the line to dry. Takes maybe 10 minutes per week, but I do need to pay attention during those minutes.


I have not read the other comments, so I'm sorry if this is a repeat. But I'm taking umbrage with the "increasing life expectancy" argument on the last questions.

Since "Life Expectancy" is just an average over the population much of the gain in life expectancy is due to a shrinking infant mortality rate. Wikipedia (good old reliable wikipedia) pegs it at 30 per 1,000 in 1950 and around 5 per 1,000 in 2005. A very easy calculation says if you have 970 of 100 living to 75 and 30 at zero, the average life expectancy is 52. With 5 per 1,000 that average climbs to 71 and all that happened is more children attain adulthood and go on to put into the system.

Although, I must concede the less wear and tear of our comfy ergonomic modern jobs could be a valid argument for raising the retirement age, but that wouldn't include those still performing physically demanding jobs who would need compensating wage differentials for retirement. But the political irony there is on the one hand the right argues for less regulation of the labor market when it comes to retirement, but then turn around and pass regulations on the labor market for private organization of labor.



You really should read the other comments first :-)

Your problem, basically, is that you are thinking of life expectancy as just life expectancy at birth. However, it can be, and is defined as starting from any age. So if you have a population that is 65 this year, you can ask what their life expectancy was at birth (about 68 years, per Google), or what it is for those who've survived to date. Which (again per Google) is about 83 years, an increase of about 4 years over people who were 65 in 1950. (Yes, your life expectancy increases as you get older: because you haven't died yet, it's always greater than your current age.)

Though what really matters, at least IMHO, is not life expectancy, but health expectancy: how long can you expect to live a reasonably active life?

Eric R

"because you haven’t died yet"

Love it :)


Has Freakonomics learned from Freakonomics the best way to convince listeners to donate?

Jonathan Ferguson

I used to work in career services, and how I would've suggested that students handle a question where they don't know the answer - a question where they would have to answer, "I don't know" - is to say this:

"I don't know at the moment. But, I would do XYZ to find the answer."

That way, you don't have to "pretend" to know something you don't and look the fool for giving a bad/wrong answer. However, you can show them that, in the future, if you ever don't know the answer, you will be willing and able to find the answer.


This might sound a little off, but my initial thought is that if a potential employer is asking me questions I don't know the answer to, I actually might not be a fit for the job and therefore probably shouldn't get it - no matter how bad I need the job.

I know the economy and the jobless rate don't give many people the option of failing job interviews these days, but I'm thinking that if I don't know answers to interview questions then I might not have the job for long anyway even if I do end up getting it...

On the flip side of that, I am fully aware that regardless of whether or not you can answer interview questions, most people probably won't fall right into their job duties anyway: In other words, whatever job they get will require some training on their part regardless of what skills they already bring to the position.

I think Jonathan's answer above is a great suggestion though, because at the very least it demonstrates to a potential employer that you are a tenacious candidate who is willing to learn things you might not already know about the job you are looking to get hired for.



I also used to work in Career Services, and we did have one employer who would always ask one question in the interview where the student could have no way of answering the question definitively. The point was to get the student off-script, throw them something that they would not have seen before, and gain some insight into their thought process, even if they came across as silly (for example: "Who would win: Robots or Pirates?"). Successful students would do as Jonathan suggested ("I don't know, but I think I would want to know more about the robots - can they shoot lasers out of their eyes? Is it my Roomba? Because a cat could defeat it. Are we talking about the Pittsburgh Pirates?), while the students who just said "Robots" or "Pirates" without giving the reason would not be asked to the second round. It wasn't enough to admit you did not know - you had to explain a bit of *why* you did not know.

This allowed the firm to select future accountants with a bit of a personality, but most importantly, would not be the kind of person who jumped to conclusions or fit things into boxes without more information. So while I do agree with you, Jason, that most jobs involve significant on-the-job training (or, firm-specific human capital investments), if someone doesn't have these specific soft-skills, the firm may be selecting the wrong type of accountant for their business needs. The idea is to find new employees for whom their training will complement their thought processes, not re-write them.



A great book for how to get your brain off autopilot and cultivating awareness is "Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values."

Meditation is the art of practicing being aware, and is a great way get in the habit of being the pilot of one's own brain.