On today’s program, we begin with a magic show … Because if there’s ever a medium that’s made for magic, it’s radio, right?
Alex STONE: Hey guys, how you doing? Good?
The magician’s name is Alex Stone.
STONE: Ok. I’m gonna start with something really simple. Maybe some of you have seen it, maybe you haven’t, and then we’ll go from there and maybe get a little more sophisticated and more complicated.
And the audience is kids – a bunch of middle-schoolers from I.S. 318 in Brooklyn.
STONE: I’m just gonna take a handkerchief here….do you want to check it out? Make sure it’s normal, nothing weird? I only blew my nose in it, like, just once. It’s okay.
With the thumb of his right hand, Stone stuffs the handkerchief into his left hand, and then – yeah, you’ve seen this before – it disappears. But then he reaches behind one kid’s ear and pulls out the handkerchief.
Stephen J. DUBNER: Did you feel that come out of your ear?
KID: Um, no.
DUBNER: Where did it come from?
KID: I don’t know.
Now they try to figure out the trick.
DUBNER: Does anybody have any guesses?
KID: His sleeve.
DUBNER: His sleeve?
STONE: Sleeves are rolled up, ok.
KID: He probably has, like, on his hand, he has, like, a pocket? And he pulls it out?
STONE: Getting warmer now. That’s good thinking.
They get warmer, and then they get hot:
KID: Something that involves your thumb?
STONE: What’s your name?
STONE: Jennifer, everyone give Jennifer a round of applause.
STONE: So, check this out.
Stone reaches into his right front pants pocket and pulls out … a fake thumb.
STONE: Yeah, it’s a fake thumb. It’s called a thumb tip, it’s one of the most valuable tools in magic, there are thousands of tricks you can do with it. And it’s pretty darn obvious once you know it’s there.
Very obvious, now it looks like…
STONE: But, and magicians have even, just to prove how no one notices, sometimes they’ll do it with a red one or metal one. No one notices, they are not looking for a fake thumb. Right, and that’s how it works. And then it’s gone and then you bring it back just like that.
Now, we had also invited some adults to see this magic show. How well did they figure out the trick?
ADULT: I was with the sleeve theory but clearly that’s wrong.
ADULT: I was wondering if it could be related to the ring at all.
DUBNER: Oh, the ring…can we see the ring…
STONE: Totally way off…
ADULT: Palming it?
STONE: That’s the dumbest theory I ever heard, so stupid, go home.
So we asked the kids why they seemed to do better than the adults.
KID: I think kids could think out of the box.
KID: Maybe adults are more serious than kids.
KID: When you went to the adults they didn’t have any clue.
KID: ‘Cause they are focusing on the handkerchief instead of the thumb.
None of this was surprising to Alex Stone. He’s seen it all before and he says that other magicians have too. If you’re a magician and your life depends on fooling an audience of adults versus an audience of kids, you’d choose the adults every time.
STONE: There’s a sense that when a kid watches a trick … they’re asking a question at every second. They’re really approaching it with this sort of constant sense of curiosity and constant sense of trying to understand what’s going on. And I feel like their brains are just always awake when they’re watching it.
All right, then. If kids tend to be more curious and more alert when it comes to magic, what about the rest of life? What about coming up with good ideas and even solving problems. Is it possible we’d all be better off if we could think like a child?
* * *
Steve Levitt is my Freakonomics friend and co-author. We’ve just published our third book together, “Think Like a Freak.”
DUBNER: Hey Levitt, what’s your favorite chapter in “Think Like a Freak”?
Steve LEVITT: So, I’m going to give you a childish answer to that question, which is that my second favorite chapter in the book is To Think Like a Child. Because most adults wouldn’t answer any question by telling you what their second favorite thing is, but that’s a thing that a child might do all the time. And I think the beauty of thinking like a child, and the beauty of that chapter in our book is that sometimes doing things differently and simply and with a kind of joy and triviality leads you to a really special place that as an adult you don’t get to go to very often.
DUBNER: Hey Levitt, let’s talk about some of what we label the characteristics of thinking like a child, like the good characteristics of thinking like a child that adults might want to smuggle into adulthood because they are productive. So, uh, thinking small. So when adults think about problem-solving, most of us kind of shy away from the little ones because we think they won’t look important or whatnot, and the big ones really need our help. So talk about the power of thinking small?
LEVITT: I think there’s a temptation to try to be something special and to take on a big problem. But it’s actually getting into the realm of thinking about a tiny little question that maybe once you learn the answer, would actually tell you about a lot of other things you might be interested in. You might be able to generalize. Actually, I tell you the best example I can think of my own research of thinking small? Was the research we did on the bagel man.
The bagel man was a guy named Paul Feldman. He’s a retired economist who started a business delivering bagels to different companies around Washington D.C. He used an honor-system payment setup – a wooden box with a slot for money. In our first book, Freakonomics, we analyzed the bagel man’s payment data and wrote up the findings: what the payment rates told us about honesty as it relates to the size of a company, the time of year, company morale, things like that.
LEVITT: And I’ll never forget a seminar I gave at the University of Chicago. Where one of my colleagues, a really smart colleague, his name is Luigi Zingales, he came to the seminar, and I said: I’m going to talk to you today about this guy who sold bagels. He blurted out: Oh, this is ridiculous, what could I possibly learn from one guy and what he does selling bagels? And I said: maybe you’ll be surprised, bear with me. And I have to say, at the end of the seminar, Luigi raised his hand and he said, I didn’t think it was possible but I actually think I learned something general from what you just taught me about the bagel man. Actually, I would say of all, I would say that that ranked as one of the top ten moments I’ve ever had in academics. Because I really believed it was true, that by thinking small I had learned something from the bagel man and others could too.
Something else that kids do is they will state facts, or describe something that’s pretty obvious. Whereas adults, we tend to think it indicates that we are not thinking hard. Talk about the power of acknowledging the obvious.
LEVITT: The best examples I’ve seen about stating the obvious have all come in a business context. So, I’ll come in as an outside consultant. People in the company will think I’m the academic, I’ll have complicated ideas and do complex econometrics. But the biggest value I add comes usually on the first day I’m talking to them when I know absolutely nothing. And I ask a question or make a statement which is so dumb and obvious that no reasonable person could ever propose it. And a lot of times it’s because it is so obvious, people who have been doing it for so long they think about it a different way, and it would be embarrassing to ask the questions I ask. And a lot of time it is embarrassing because it is such an obvious or dumb question, but every once in a while it turns out that that obvious question is the absolute breakthrough. It’s the thing that once you step back and look at it through the lens of, in this case, a childlike ignorance, it opens you up to seeing what the truth is.
DUBNER: So, Levitt, kids spend a lot of their time playing and otherwise having fun. Adults out of duty and necessity spend considerably less, at least most adults. What’s the advantage of keeping your eye on fun or injecting fun in your work even for something as serious-ish as public policy? Why is fun something that is underutilized or could be utilized better?
LEVITT: Video games are fun. My son Nick who is 11 years old can play video games for 8 hours straight. Could Nick work at a job, say, at McDonald’s for 8 hours? No. So it seems to me what you take away from that is that if you can make a job as fun as a video game, then you’d have all the 11-year-old boys in the world, and probably the 15-year-old and 20 year old and maybe even 30-year-old boys lining up to try to take that job. I think fun is so much more important than people realize. And I’ve seen it in academics. When I interview young professors and try and decide if we should hire them. I’ve evolved over time to one basic rule: if I think they love economics and it’s fun for them, I am in favor of hiring them. No matter how talented they seem, otherwise, if it seems like a job or effort or work then I don’t want to hire them.
DUBNER: Persuade me that they won’t just be nice to have around because they love fun, but that having fun at what you do makes you better, or different in some way that is positive.
LEVITT: Enjoying what you do, loving what you do is such a completely unfair advantage to anyone you are competing with who does it for a job. People who love it, they go to bed at night thinking about the solutions. They wake up in the middle of the night and they jot down ideas, they work weekends. It turns out that effort is a huge component of success in almost everything. We know that from practice and whatnot. And people who love things work and work and work at it. Because it’s not work — it’s fun. And so my strongest advice to young people trying to figure out what they want to do is, I always tell them: try to figure out what you love, especially something you love that other people don’t love. Everyone wants to be [a] rock star or everyone wants to be in the movies, but that’s terrible; you don’t want to compete head-on. Find some…if you love ants, go study ants. Because no one else loves ants, and you’ll have a big advantage over the people who are just studying ants because they can’t think of what else to do.
DUBNER: The E.O. Wilson crush continues.
LEVITT: Yeah, E.O. Wilson is perfect. So E.O. Wilson was one of my mentors in college. Indeed, that’s what he did. He loved ants more than anything and he became the world’s greatest expert on ants. He had a great career, not just success but joy, he got true joy. That was the thing that inspired me about Wilson. Even as he was in his 70s and his 80s, he loved what he did, he loved ants.
Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: If you’re a scientist studying the way kids think, what do you learn?
Alison GOPNIK: It’s exactly the opposite of what we used to think, is an easy way to describe it.
And what else can we learn from that magic show?
STONE: With kids, you get this sense that with every step of the way they’re trying to understand it. From the second they see it, they’re always coming up with theories.
KIDS: You’re listening to Freakonomics Radio. Freakonomics Radio!
* * *
You will remember at the start of this show that we brought in a magician to do some tricks for kids and adults:
STONE: Well, my name is Alex Stone.
STONE: And I’m a journalist, author of a book on magic and science called “Fooling Houdini,” and a lifelong magic enthusiast and performer.
So, on the scale of 1-10 of magic expertise, with me being a zero — zero to ten — you’re where? How good are you?
STONE: That’s a sensitive question. A lot of magicians would get angry if I —
But I know that you’re not that kind of magician.
STONE: Um. I’m probably somewhere in the 7.5 range.
So, very good but not an all-time great. Not a Hall-of-Famer. But good.
STONE: I mean, I know a lot about magic.
DUBNER: One thing that a magician does a lot, that you did a little bit today, is misdirection. So talk about that and how vulnerable kids are versus adults.
STONE: Yeah, you know, what I find is that kids are better at paying attention to more than one thing. Their attention is more diffuse. Adults are really good at focusing on one thing and ignoring peripheral distractions, whereas kids are really good at sort of shotgunning their attention all over the place. Which is a good way to learn. It’s good when you’re first learning how things work when you’re first exploring the world. But in magic, you want the person to focus on one thing. You want to direct their attention to one particular thing so that they won’t see what’s going on in the shadows.
DUBNER: You want to seduce them so you can trick them.
STONE: Exactly. I think it’s also that they’re approaching it with this curiosity, and it’s this sponge-like desire, and that they’re always making theories. That’s the other thing. I don’t feel like adults are like that. I sort of feel like they watch it and they’re waiting for the punchline, and then they sort of see it, and then they maybe go back and think about it. With kids, you get this sense that at every step of the way they’re trying to understand it. From the second they see it, they’re always coming up with theories. “Oh it was in a sleeve.” “Oh, he had a fake thing in his hand.” And they come up with theories that…you know, adults just aren’t doing that.
GOPNIK: You’re much more likely to be able to manipulate adult attention than you are to be able to manipulate children.
That’s Alison Gopnik.
GOPNIK: I’m a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley.
Gopnik does not study magic. What does she study?
GOPNIK: Young children’s minds, particularly how it is that young children can manage to learn as much as they do about the world as quickly as they do.
She has also written books about her research. “The Philosophical Baby” was one; “The Scientist in the Crib” was another. Her work reinforces what the magician Alex Stone told us, that children tend to see things fundamentally differently than adults:
GOPNIK: They’re not very good, as we all know, at just focusing on one thing. They get distracted incredibly easily. They notice anything that’s interesting or that changes or that they might learn from in their environment. And that makes them worse subjects of magic. When I wrote my book, I had a beautiful letter from someone who was actually a store detective. He said that one of the things he’d do is he’d perch up on top of a balcony, on top of the store floor, and then he’d look at what people were doing below him. He said what would happen is you’d see people walking along this floor and they’d be holding the hand of a three-year-old. And the three-year-old would look up and would see him on the balcony and would wave and say hello, and the adults never did that. It never even occurred to the adults to look up on the balcony and see what was there.
DUBNER: Can you summarize what we’ve learned and a little bit about how we’ve learned it, about how children think and especially establish things like causal understandings?
GOPNIK: Well, it’s sort of easy. It’s exactly the opposite of what we used to think, is an easy way to describe it. So, people used to think that children were illogical. And what we’ve discovered is that even little babies are capable of making logical deductions. A really dramatic one is that people have thought that even adults are terribly bad at understanding probability. Well, it turns out that babies and very young children, if you give them the problems in the right way, are actually amazingly good at doing probabilistic inference. Let me give you one more example. The conventional wisdom has been that children are egocentric and they can’t take the perspective of other people. And one of the really dramatic things we’ve discovered is that, again, even infants are capable of figuring out what’s going on in someone else’s mind, and figuring out how they think and feel about the world.
DUBNER: Okay, so you’ve given us a number of traits that children exhibit in much larger measure than we might’ve thought before. What about the ways in which the old wisdom was right? What are the ways in which children really are kind of a dormant or latent version, at best, of what they will become?
GOPNIK: Yeah. It’s interesting. The kind of conventional wisdom was really that children were sort of defective grownups. So they were grownups, but missing pieces, with bits that hadn’t developed yet. But if you think about that from a biological or an evolutionary point of view, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense. An alternative way that you might think about them is think of the kids as being the research and development division of the human species. And we’re—adults—we’re production and marketing. So from the production and marketing perspective, it might look like the R & D guys are really not doing anything that looks very sensible or useful. They sit around all day in their beanbag chairs playing Pong and having blue-sky ideas. And we poor production and marketing people who are actually making the profits have to subsidize these guys. But of course, one of the things that we know is that that kind of blue-sky, just pure research actually pays off in the long run.
DUBNER: So, I can imagine that an adult listening to you say these things would say, “Sure. That makes sense. That resonates with me. I believe that children have these traits in maybe a different shape or dimension than the traits I have.” But I think it’s probably hard for most adults to think about the idea that there are traits that are valued in adults that children may actually be better at than adults. So tell me a little bit about that. Are there some that would fit that category?
GOPNIK: Part of the reason why we adults are really good at learning things quickly is because we already know a lot about the world. So when you look at how adults learn, the way that we typically learn is we take all those things we’ve already learned and we already know—and they weigh really, really heavily in our decision-making and in the kinds of solutions that we’re going to consider—and then we maybe have a little new evidence. But most of the time, we sort of ignore it. Or we might just tweak a little bit what we already think. But you know, mostly the way our brains are is they’re not broke, so we don’t want to fix them. They’re working just fine. We’ll just leave them the way they are.
DUBNER: Implicit in that is while we have this strong set of priors, right? Prior beliefs that we act on. And also implicit in what you’re saying is we have a lot of heuristics, we have a lot of shortcuts that we’ve learned work well enough, and so we do them always, right?
GOPNIK: Exactly. Let me give you an example in the universities for example. It’s a good example, my world. We give lectures. And the origins of that are the days when there weren’t printed books, so you had one manuscript and the professor was reading from the manuscript because the students didn’t have books. It is literally a medieval instructional technique. But we’ve been doing it for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s kind of what you do when you’re a faculty member. And the fact that we have no evidence at all—in fact, we have some evidence to the contrary—that this is a good way to get anybody to learn anything, doesn’t keep us from doing it. Mostly we’re doing it because we’ve always done it.
DUBNER: The students aren’t dying of boredom, at least. They may be bored, but they’re not dying.
DUBNER: And when you ask yourself the question of Why do we do it? What does even a very smart person say? How does a very smart person answer that question for themselves?
GOPNIK: I think what they say is, “Well, we’ve kind of always done it, and it seems to work OK, and we’re good at doing it.” And I think, here’s the most relevant thing: It would take so much work to try and think through all the alternatives, and try them out and see which ones work and which ones don’t. That would just be such an effort that, even if maybe in the long run it would be a bit of an advantage, in terms of my short-run utilities, and in particular, just for me, it’s not going to make a difference. I think the general picture when you talk about risks as adults when we’re trying to decide on a course of action, we’re always balancing the risks and utilities. Whether that’s a risk to my reputation or my ego or my future interactions with other people or just a risk to my profit margin. And kids aren’t in that world of—or at least, if they’re being taken care of properly—they’re not in that world of risk and utility calculations. That liberates them, that frees them to, as we say, play. Which we sort of take for granted: yes, of course, kids play. But what “play” means, what do you mean when you say someone’s playing? You mean they’re doing something without really having a specific goal, without having to worry about whether it’s going to be productive or not.
DUBNER: So where do all these wonderful and productive – potentially, at least – childlike traits go? Do they magically evaporate? Is there a switch in our genes that kinda clicks over at age 21 and we stop thinking this way? What happens?
GOPNIK: Um, what we’re trying to figure out now is exactly the answer to that question. One thing that could happen is, we all have the same brains but as we accumulate more information—and we know that this happens—that some of the pathways get strengthened and become more efficient, and then other pathways just are what’s called ‘pruned.’ They just disappear. So it could be that it’s just a matter of as we get to know more and become more efficient, we lose the capacity for flexibility. But it could also be that there is something about being a child, about having that particular childlike mind and brain, that is the thing that’s letting you explore more and, in some sense, be more creative. And that there are things that we could do even as adults that put us back into that kind of state.
A state that’s kind of…magical maybe? We went back to Alex Stone.
DUBNER: What was your favorite moment of your magic show today?
STONE: I loved how quickly they figured out the card trick, the Double Lift. That was just: Bam! Adults never figure that out.
STONE: I’m going to give the deck a shuffle, I don’t know if you can hear, and give the deck a cut.
This trick is called The Ambitious Card. Alex Stone asks one kid to pick a card and place it back in the deck, and then he shuffles the deck – but somehow the kid’s card makes it back to the top of the deck.
STONE: This trick kind of tells a story, and the story is that no matter how many times you try to bury this card — it’s kind of like a Houdini escape told in miniature – no matter how many times you try to take this card and put it in the middle of the deck, it’s ambitious. That’s why it’s called Ambitious Card. It always wants to pop back up to the top, always; and you keep doing it, and every time you do it it gets more and more amazing.
Again, it didn’t take long for the kids to figure out the trick.
DUBNER: Where did it come from? How’d it happen?
KID: He has a different card on top.
The Ambitious Card, like a lot of tricks, relies on a “double lift”: that’s when the magician presents two cards as if they are one. The kids figured it out.
DUBNER: She just busted your whole act.
STONE: Get the heck out of here! All right, good job.
STONE: How did I? You still don’t understand, even after they explain?
ADULT: I don’t understand.
DUBNER: The grownups need more help.
DUBNER: So, I’m curious if your observation that kids are more perceptive when it comes to magic has led you to consciously try to kind of engage or magnify any kid-like traits in your life as an adult?
DUBNER: Like what? Name some.
STONE: Like I love listening to the Bach Lute Suites. Especially the John Williams on guitar. When I listen to that, or I like any kind of classical music that’s sort of multi-voiced—try listening to the lute suites and always focus on the bass.
STONE: Because the bass is always less, you’re less conscious of the bass. Because the higher frequency notes are always the lead notes. It’s like when you’re listening to a song and there’s a singer singing high, you’re drawn to that. That’s the flash of light of the match. That’s the hand waving the handkerchief. So when you force yourself to sort of focus on the bass, what I find, at least, is that it kind of levels out everything else. It kind of turns down the sort of middle voice and high voice. And you end up sort of, I find, sort of hearing everything simultaneously. And it allows you to kind of divide your attention so that you’re experiencing the piece as a whole. You’re hearing all the voices more clearly. And it’s hard to do it at first, actually, because your attention keeps snapping back to the high voice. But if you kind of train yourself to do it, I think it brings out a richness in the music that’s amazing, because you start to hear everything at once. And that’s kinda the same idea as focusing on the hand that’s not doing so much in the magic trick.