Kai RYSSDAL: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It’s that moment every couple of weeks we talk to the co-authors of the book and the blog of the same name. “It is the hidden side of everything”, of course. And today, it is the brains if you will of the operation, Steven Levitt, professor of economics at the University of Chicago. Great to talk to you again.
Steve LEVITT: Thanks, Kai. Great to be here.
RYSSDAL: So listen, usually when we have you on and Dubner’s out doing whatever it is that he does, it’s because you have some new research that you want to share, some new project you’re working on, but yet this time it’s different.
LEVITT: It is. Now we’re trying to get you in on the ground floor. And here’s a question worth thinking about. Periodically, everyone faces really difficult, important questions in life. Should you move to a new city, or quit smoking, or maybe what college to attend, or I don’t know, should I get a tattoo? And there are pros and cons …
RYSSDAL: Wait, wait, do you have a tattoo? You don’t have a tattoo, do you?
LEVITT: Yeah, I have no tattoo. I’m not a big believer in tattoos.
RYSSDAL: Pros and cons.
LEVITT: So there are pros and cons to any of those choices and what you know is that your life will be different if you take — you know, if you move to a new city, but you don’t know if it will be better or worse. And often people get tied up in knots and essentially become paralyzed, they can’t make those big decisions. Our new project is all about helping people to make those big decisions.
RYSSDAL: All right, how are you going to do it? Help me out.
LEVITT: Well, we have a website, Freakonomicsexperiments.com. And if you are having a tough time with a big decision we want you to come there and we’re going to help you in two ways. First, we’re going to give you some — a questionnaire, and hopefully, ask you some questions, which will help you to think differently about that problem, and might help break that gridlock you’re having in trying to decide. But if all else fails, what we are going to do is provide you an enormous service, which is we’re going to flip a coin for you. And if it comes up heads, we’re going to tell you to make the change, and if it comes up tails we’re going to say keep on doing what you’re doing.
RYSSDAL: And that’s economics right there, you just flip a coin. And you’re all set.
LEVITT: It’s a new breed of economics.
RYSSDAL: Wow, what does this tell us though, what will be added to the field of economic knowledge of how we make decisions to begin with? Right? Because I assume that there’s some higher purpose here.
LEVITT: Well, there certainly is. You know that we’re the Freakonomics guys, we’re not just trying to help people, we’re trying to get something for ourselves as well. We know a lot, the psychologists and the economist about how people make little decisions and how easily influenced people are in the lab if you try to trick them into doing what you want. But we know almost nothing about these big decisions because you can never really get inside the heads of people on big decisions. And we’re going to learn does life turn out better for people who make the change or turn out worse for people who make the change? And we want to use that information to really help people in the future make wise choices on these many dimensions.
RYSSDAL: All right, so two things. One is your Nobel Prize is in the mail. But number two is, what you’re doing here …
LEVITT: This is going to cost me my Nobel Prize! Look, if I was every going to win a Nobel Prize this is the end of it. That’s how much I care about these questions. I’m willing to risk my entire academic reputation to find out the answer on this website.
RYSSDAL: But what you’re doing here is turning people’s lives into experiments, right? I mean, you know …
LEVITT: I would look at it very differently. I would say people have to make decisions and they’re essentially indifferent from one path to another, they don’t know what to do. Why not make yourself part of the Freakonomics research team. Not only will we help you answer these decisions, so we’ll get you out of that jam, but now you have an inspiration, right, now you have a reason to follow through on the decision because you’re part of the team, the team relies on you for science to make this work. So, I don’t know, I think once you’re at the point where you don’t know what to do, you’re essentially tossing a coin anyway, why not actually toss the coin and make the world a better place in the future.
RYSSDAL: Steven Levitt from the University of Chicago. Freakonomicsexperiments.com is the new website. See ya.
LEVITT: Thank you, Kai. It’s always a pleasure.