Think Like a Freak - Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner (2014)
Chapter 5. Think Like a Child
At this point you may be asking yourself: Seriously? The power of poop? A guy who swallows a beaker full of dangerous bacteria—and, before that, a guy who swallows a year’s supply of hot dogs in 12 minutes? Could things possibly get any more childish around here? Is “thinking like a Freak” just code for “thinking like a child”?
Well, not entirely. But when it comes to generating ideas and asking questions, it can be really fruitful to have the mentality of an eight-year-old.
Consider the kind of questions that kids ask. Sure, they may be silly or simplistic or out of bounds. But kids are also relentlessly curious and relatively unbiased. Because they know so little, they don’t carry around the preconceptions that often stop people from seeing things as they are. When it comes to solving problems, this is a big advantage. Preconceptions lead us to rule out a huge set of possible solutions simply because they seem unlikely or repugnant; because they don’t pass the smell test or have never been tried; because they don’t seem sophisticated enough.* But remember, it was a child who finally pointed out that the Emperor’s new clothes were in fact no clothes at all.
Kids are not afraid to share their wildest ideas. As long as you can tell the difference between a good idea and a bad one, generating a boatload of ideas, even outlandish ones, can only be a good thing. When it comes to generating ideas, the economic concept of “free disposal” is key. Come up with a terrible idea? No problem—just don’t act on it.
Granted, sorting bad ideas from good isn’t easy. (One trick that works for us is a cooling-off period. Ideas nearly always seem brilliant when they’re hatched, so we never act on a new idea for at least twenty-four hours. It is remarkable how stinky some ideas become after just one day in the sun.) In the end, you may find that only one idea out of twenty is worth pursuing—but you might never have come up with that one unless you were willing to blurt out, childlike, everything that wandered through your brain.
So when it comes to solving problems, channeling your inner child can really pay off. It all starts with thinking small.
If you meet someone who fancies himself a thought leader or an intellectual, one of the nicest compliments you can pay is to call him a “big thinker.” Go ahead, try it, and watch him swell with pride. If he does, we can virtually guarantee you he has no interest in thinking like a Freak.
To think like a Freak means to think small, not big. Why? For starters, every big problem has been thought about endlessly by people much smarter than we are. The fact that it remains a problem means it is too damned hard to be cracked in full. Such problems are intractable, hopelessly complex, brimming with entrenched and misaligned incentives. Sure, there are some truly brilliant people out there and they probably should think big. For the rest of us, thinking big means you’ll spend a lot of time tilting at windmills.
While thinking small won’t win you many points with the typical big thinker, there are at least a few noteworthy advocates of our approach. Sir Isaac Newton, for instance. “To explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age,” he wrote. “Tis much better to do a little with certainty and leave the rest for others that come after than to explain all things by conjecture without making sure of any thing.”
Maybe the two of us are biased. Maybe we believe in the power of thinking small only because we are so bad at thinking big. There isn’t a single big problem we’ve come close to solving; we just nibble around the margins. In any case, we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s much better to ask small questions than big ones. Here are a few reasons:
1. Small questions are by their nature less often asked and investigated, and maybe not at all. They are virgin territory for true learning.
2. Since big problems are usually a dense mass of intertwined small problems, you can make more progress by tackling a small piece of the big problem than by flailing away at grand solutions.
3. Any kind of change is hard, but the chances of triggering change on a small problem are much greater than on a big one.
4. Thinking big is, by definition, an exercise in imprecision or even speculation. When you think small, the stakes may be diminished but at least you can be relatively sure you know what you’re talking about.
So this all sounds great in theory, but does it really work?
We’d like to think our own track record says yes. While we haven’t done much about the worldwide scourge of traffic deaths, we did highlight one category of high-risk behavior that was previously overlooked: drunk walking. Rather than attack the huge problem of corporate embezzlement, we used data from a mom-and-pop bagel-delivery outfit in Washington to learn which factors lead people to steal at work (bad weather and stressful holidays, for instance). While we’ve done nothing to solve the tragedy of childhood gun deaths, we did single out an even greater childhood killer: backyard swimming accidents.
These modest successes look even more trivial when compared with those of other, like-minded small thinkers. Trillions of dollars have been spent on worldwide education reforms, usually focused on overhauling the system in some way—smaller classrooms, better curricula, more testing, and so on. But as we noted earlier, the raw material in the education system—the students themselves—are often overlooked. Might there be some small, simple, cheap intervention that could help millions of students?
One in four children, it turns out, has subpar eyesight, while a whopping 60 percent of “problem learners” have trouble seeing. If you can’t see well, you won’t read well, and that makes school extra hard. And yet even in a rich country like the United States, vision screening is often lax and there hasn’t been much research on the relationship between poor vision and school performance.
Three economists—Paul Glewwe, Albert Park, and Meng Zhao—happened upon this problem in China. They decided to do some hands-on research in Gansu, a poor and remote province. Out of the roughly 2,500 fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders there who needed eyeglasses, only 59 wore them. So the economists ran an experiment. They offered free eyeglasses to half the students and let the other half carry on as before. The cost, about $15 per pair of glasses, was covered by a World Bank research grant.
How did the newly bespectacled students do? After wearing glasses for a year, their test scores showed they’d learned 25 to 50 percent more than their uncorrected peers. Thanks to a $15 pair of glasses!
We’re not saying that giving glasses to the schoolkids who need them will fix every education problem, not by a long shot. But when you are fixated on thinking big, this is exactly the kind of small-bore solution you can easily miss.*
Here’s another cardinal rule of thinking like a child: don’t be afraid of the obvious.
The two of us are sometimes invited to meet with a company or an institution that wants outside help with some kind of problem. Walking in, we usually know next to nothing about how their business works. In most instances in which we wind up being helpful, it is the result of an idea that arose in the first few hours—when, starting from complete ignorance, we asked a question that an insider would never deign to ask. Just as many people are unwilling to say “I don’t know,” nor do they want to appear unsophisticated by asking a simple question or making an observation that was hidden in plain sight.
The idea for the abortion-crime study we cited earlier arose from the simple observation of a simple set of numbers published in the Statistical Abstract of the United States (the kind of book economists leaf through for grins).
What do the numbers say? Nothing more than this: within ten years, the United States went from very few abortions to roughly 1.6 million a year, largely because of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal in all fifty states.
The average smart person, seeing this spike, might immediately jump to its moral or political ramifications. If, however, you are still in touch with your inner child, your first thought might be: Wow, 1.6 million of anything is a lot. So … that must have affected something!
If you are willing to confront the obvious, you will end up asking a lot of questions that others don’t. Why does that fourth-grader seem plenty smart in conversation but can’t answer a single question when it’s written on the blackboard? Sure, driving drunk is dangerous, but what about drunk walking? If an ulcer is caused by stress and spicy foods, why do some people with low stress and bland diets still get ulcers?
As Albert Einstein liked to say, everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. This is a beautiful way to address the frictions that bedevil modern society: as grateful as we are for the complex processes that have produced so much technology and progress, we are also dizzied by their sprawl. It is easy to get seduced by complexity; but there is virtue in simplicity too.
Let’s return briefly to Barry Marshall, our bacteria-gulping Aussie hero who cracked the ulcer code. His father, you’ll remember, was an engineer—in a chicken-packing plant, on whaling boats, and elsewhere. “We always had acetylene, oxyacetylene, electrical gear, machinery in our garage,” he recalls. At one point, the family lived near a scrap-metal yard with a lot of army leftovers. Marshall trawled it with vigor. “You could find old torpedoes, beautiful little motors, ack-ack guns—you would sit there and wind the handles on them.”
In medical school, Marshall found that most of his peers came from families in which the parents were executives or lawyers, with the upbringing to match. Most of them, he says, “never had a chance to play around with an electrical device or tubes or pipes and pressure and things like that.” Marshall’s hands-on skills were in great demand when it came time to jolt a frog with electricity.
This difference carried over to Marshall’s view of the human body itself. The history of medicine is of course long and occasionally glorious. But for all its seeming embrace of science, medicine has also relied on strands of theology, poetry, even shamanism. As a result, the body has often been seen as an ethereal vessel animated by some ghostly human spirit. In this view, the body’s complexities are vast, and to some degree impenetrable. Marshall, meanwhile, saw the body as more of a machine—a wondrous machine, to be sure—operating on the basic principles of engineering, chemistry, and physics. While plainly more complicated than an old torpedo, the body could nonetheless be taken apart, tinkered with, and, to some extent, put back together.
Nor did Marshall ignore the obvious fact that all his ulcer patients had a tummy full of bacteria. At the time, conventional wisdom held that the stomach environment was too acidic for bacteria to thrive. And yet there they were. “People who had seen them had always washed them off to look at the stomach cells underneath,” says Marshall, “and just ignored the bacteria stuck all over the surface.”
So he asked a beautifully simple question: What in the heck are these bacteria doing here? By so doing, he went on to prove that an ulcer is not a failure of the human spirit. It was more like a blown gasket, easy enough to patch up if you knew how.
You may have noticed a common thread in some of the stories we’ve told—about solving ulcers, eating hot dogs, and blind-tasting wine: the people involved seem to be having a good time as they learn. Freaks like to have fun. This is another good reason to think like a child.
Kids aren’t afraid to like the things they like. They don’t say they want to go to the opera when they’d rather play video games. They don’t pretend they’re enjoying a meeting when they really want to get up and run around. Kids are in love with their own audacity, mesmerized by the world around them, and unstoppable in their pursuit of fun.
But in one of the strangest wrinkles of human development, these traits magically evaporate in most people by their twenty-first birthday.
There are certain realms in which having fun, or even looking like you’re having fun, is practically forbidden. Politics, for one; academia too. And while some firms have lately been spicing things up with gamification, most of the business world remains allergic to fun.
Why do so many frown so sternly at the idea of having fun? Perhaps out of fear that it connotes you aren’t serious. But best as we can tell, there is no correlation between appearing to be serious and actually being good at what you do. In fact an argument can be made that the opposite is true.
There has been a recent surge in research into “expert performance,” hoping to determine what makes people good at what they do. The single-most compelling finding? Raw talent is overrated: people who achieve excellence—whether at golf or surgery or piano-playing—were often not the most talented at a young age, but became expert by endlessly practicing their skills. Is it possible to endlessly practice something you don’t enjoy? Perhaps, although neither one of us is capable of it.
Why is it so important to have fun? Because if you love your work (or your activism or your family time), then you’ll want to do more of it. You’ll think about it before you go to sleep and as soon as you wake up; your mind is always in gear. When you’re that engaged, you’ll run circles around other people even if they are more naturally talented. From what we’ve seen personally, the best predictor of success among young economists and journalists is whether they absolutely love what they do. If they approach their job like—well, a job—they aren’t likely to thrive. But if they’ve somehow convinced themselves that running regressions or interviewing strangers is the funnest thing in the world, you know they have a shot.
Perhaps the arena most in need of a fun injection is public policy. Think about how policymakers generally try to shape society: by cajoling, threatening, or taxing people into behaving better. The implication is that if something is fun—gambling or eating cheeseburgers or treating the presidential election like a horse race—then it must be bad for us. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Rather than dismiss the fun impulse, why not co-opt it for the greater good?
Consider this problem: Americans are infamously bad at saving money. The personal savings rate is currently about 4 percent. We all know it’s important to put away money for emergencies and education and retirement. So why don’t we do it? Because it’s a lot more fun to spend money than to lock it up in a bank!
Meanwhile, Americans spend roughly $60 billion a year on lottery tickets. It’s hard to deny that playing the lottery is fun. But a lot of people also treat it like an investment. Nearly 40 percent of low-income adults consider the lottery their best chance to ever acquire a large sum of money. As a result, low earners spend a much bigger share of their income on the lottery than higher earners.
Unfortunately, the lottery is a dreadful investment. It typically pays out only 60 percent of the take, far less than any casino or racetrack would dare offer. So for every 100 lottery dollars you “invest,” you can expect to lose 40.
But what if the fun part of playing the lottery could somehow be harnessed to help people save money? That is the idea behind a prize-linked savings (PLS) account. Here’s how it works. Rather than spend $100 on lottery tickets, you deposit $100 in a bank account. Let’s say the going interest rate is 1 percent. In a PLS account, you agree to surrender a small chunk of that interest, perhaps .25 percent, which then gets pooled with all the other small chunks from fellow PLS depositors. What happens to that pool of money? It is periodically paid out in a lump sum to some randomly chosen winner—just like the lottery!
A PLS account won’t deliver multimillion-dollar jackpots, since the payout pool is drawn from interest rather than principal. But here’s the real benefit: even if you never win the PLS lottery, your original deposit (and the interest) remain in your bank account. That’s why some people call it a “no-lose lottery.” PLS programs have helped people all over the world save money while at the same time not blowing their hard-earned salary on the lottery. In Michigan, a group of credit unions recently put together a PLS pilot program called “Save to Win.” Its first big winner was an eighty-six-year-old woman named Billie June Smith. With a deposit of just $75 into her account, she won a payout of $100,000.
Alas, while a few states are experimenting with similar programs, PLS fever isn’t exactly sweeping the nation. Why not? Most states prohibit a PLS because it is a form of lottery, and state law typically allows only one entity to run a lottery: the state itself. (Nice monopoly if you can get it.) Moreover, federal law currently prohibits banks from operating lotteries. You can hardly blame politicians for wanting to keep the exclusive right to that $60 billion in annual lottery revenue. Just keep in mind that as much as you may enjoy playing the lottery, the state is having even more fun—because it always wins.
Consider another big challenge: raising money for charitable projects. The standard approach, which we’ll look at more closely in Chapter 6, involves a heart-rending pitch with pictures of suffering children or abused animals. It would seem that the secret to raising money is to make people feel so guilty that they can’t hold out any longer. Might there be another way?
People love to gamble. They especially seem to love to gamble online. But as of this writing, most online gambling that involves winning real money is illegal in the United States. And yet Americans love gambling so much that millions of them spend billions of real dollars to play fake slot machines and run virtual farms even though they can’t take home a penny. If they happen to win, the money is gobbled up by the companies that run the sites.
So consider the following question. If you are willing to pay $20 for the privilege of playing a fake slot machine or running a virtual farm, do you want the money to end up in the hands of Facebook or Zynga, or would you rather it go to your favorite charity? That is, if the American Cancer Society offered an online game that was just as fun as the one you’re already playing, wouldn’t you rather the money go there? Wouldn’t it be even more fun to play the game and make the world a better place at the same time?
That was our hypothesis when we recently helped start a website called SpinForGood.com. It’s a social-gaming site where people compete with other players and—if they win—donate the proceeds to their favorite charity. Maybe it’s not as fun as keeping the money for yourself, but it’s surely better than dropping your winnings into Facebook’s or Zynga’s big bucket.
Have fun, think small, don’t fear the obvious—these are all childlike behaviors that, according to us at least, an adult would do well to hang on to. But how strong is the evidence that this stuff actually works?
Let’s consider one situation in which kids are better than adults despite all the years of experience and training that should give adults the edge. Imagine for a moment you are a magician. If your life depended on fooling an audience of adults or an audience of kids, whom would you choose?
The obvious answer would be the kids. Adults, after all, know so much more about how things work. But in reality, kids are harder to fool. “Every magician will tell you the same thing,” says Alex Stone, whose book Fooling Houdini explores the science of deception. “When you really start to look at magic and how it works—the sort of nuts and bolts of how magic fools us—you start to ask some rather profound questions,” he says. “You know, how do we perceive reality? How much of what we perceive is actually real? How much faith can we have in our memories?”
Stone, who holds an advanced physics degree, is himself a lifelong magician. His first gig was his own sixth birthday party. “It didn’t go well,” he says. “I was heckled. It was terrible. I was unprepared.” He got better and has since performed for all types of audiences, including leading scholars in biology, physics, and related fields. “You’d think scientists would be hard to dupe,” he says, “but really they’re pretty easy.”
Many of Stone’s tricks include a “double lift,” a common sleight in which a magician presents two cards as if they are one. That’s how a magician can show you “your” card, then seemingly bury it in the deck and make it reappear back on top. “It’s a devastating move,” Stone says. “Simple but very convincing.” Stone has performed many thousands of double lifts. “I’ve been burned by an adult layperson—i.e., not a magician—maybe twice in the last ten years. But I’ve been burned a bunch of times by kids.”
Why are kids so much harder to deceive? Stone cites several reasons:
1. A magician is constantly steering and cuing his audience to see what the magician wants them to see. This leaves adults—trained all their lives to follow such cues—especially vulnerable. “Intelligence,” says Stone, “doesn’t correlate very well with gullibility.”
2. Adults are indeed better than kids at “paying attention,” or focusing on one task at a time. “This is great for getting stuff done,” Stone says, “but it also makes you susceptible to misdirection.” Kids’ attention, meanwhile, “is more diffuse, which makes them harder to fool.”
3. Kids don’t buy into dogma. “They’re relatively free of assumptions and expectations about how the world works,” Stone says, “and magic is all about turning your assumptions and expectations against you. When you’re pretending to shuffle a deck, they don’t even notice you’re shuffling.”
4. Kids are genuinely curious. In Stone’s experience, an adult may be hell-bent on blowing up a trick in order to upstage the magician. (Such people are called “hammers.”) A kid, meanwhile, “is really trying to figure out how the trick works, because that’s what you’re doing as a kid—trying to figure out how the world works.”
5. In certain ways, kids are simply sharper than adults. “We’re getting dumber as we get older, perceptually,” says Stone. “We just don’t notice as much after 18 or so. So with the double lift, kids may actually be noticing the slight difference in thickness between a single card and two cards stuck together.”
6. Kids don’t overthink a trick. Adults, meanwhile, seek out non-obvious explanations. “The theories that people come up with!” Stone says. Most tricks, he says, are relatively simple. “But people have the most cockamamie explanations. They’ll say, ‘You hypnotized me!’ Or, ‘When you showed me the ace, was it not the ace and you just convinced me it was?’ They won’t get that you simply forced the card on them.”
Stone points to one last advantage that has nothing to do with how kids think, and yet can help them decipher a trick: their height. Stone does mostly close-up magic, “and you really want to see it from head-on or above.” Kids, meanwhile, are looking up at the trick from below. “I like this one trick where you make coins jump back and forth. You’re back-palming the coin, and if kids are too low they might see it.”
So by virtue of being low to the ground, a kid can short-circuit a process that has been laboriously built to be seen from above. Unless you’re a magician yourself, you’d never discover this advantage. This is a perfectly Freakish illustration of how, by seeing things from a literally new angle, you can sometimes gain an edge in solving a problem.
That said, we aren’t suggesting you should model all your behavior after an eight-year-old. That would almost certainly cause more problems than it solves. But wouldn’t it be nice if we all smuggled a few childlike instincts across the border into adulthood? We’d spend more time saying what we mean and asking questions we care about; we might even shed a bit of that most pernicious adult trait: pretense.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote across many genres, including children’s books. In an essay called “Why I Write for Children,” he explained the appeal. “Children read books, not reviews,” he wrote. “They don’t give a hoot about the critics.” And: “When a book is boring, they yawn openly, without any shame or fear of authority.” Best of all—and to the relief of authors everywhere—children “don’t expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity.”
So please, when you’re done reading this book, give it to a kid.