Steven D. Levitt

Think Like a Freak

  • This summary of Think Like a Freak includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

Think Like a Freak Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Think Like a Freak by Steven D. Levitt.

Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain is a 2014 educational-sociological novel by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. The former a University of Chicago economist and the latter a journalist for The New York Times, the authors use a mixture of rigorous research and anecdotal evidence to explicate certain social issues and explain tools used for dealing with them. The authors reinforce the idea of “thinking outside the box,” looking with renewed interest at contemporary social problems that they feel have been poorly examined.

In their introduction, the authors assert that the problem-solving individual should discount all of their assumptions and prejudices about social problems before trying to solve them. They cite a study by Robin Goldstein, in which hundreds of subjects were blindfolded and asked to taste different wines. Without knowing which brands they were drinking, the subjects tended to prefer cheaper wine to expensive wine.

Next, the authors explain what it means to think like a “freak.” They give the example of the penalty kicker in soccer, who tends to win against the goalie by thinking of the most unusual approach to kicking the ball. The goalie, armed only with his knowledge of previous kick attempts, is powerless to defend against any approach that is truly unprecedented. The authors also use David Cameron, the British prime minister at the time of writing, as an example of a political figure who stretches the limits of strategy in governance while appealing to the electorate.

Next, the authors emphasize the importance of promptly admitting when one does not know the answer to a problem. The authors return to Goldstein’s studies, citing research that shows people who admit uncertainty tend to be more accurate in their final estimates and judgments than people who are unwilling to admit a lack of knowledge. The authors explain that the most important step to gaining the knowledge needed to solve a problem is to ask correct, rather than vague or misleading, questions. When an individual asks a series of wrong questions, they’re unlikely to approach an accurate model of the problem they seek to solve. Here, the authors refer to the experiences of competitive eating star Takeru Kobayashi, who reshaped his approach to winning rapid hot dog eating contests by learning more about the factors most implicated in winning or losing; that is, his own biology.

Next, the authors focus on looking at problems from fresh perspectives. They also discuss why it is so unusual for people to diverge from normal solutions and invent their own, better ones. They look at different issues of poverty and note that models of impoverishment in social systems theory are extremely entrenched, bound to the status quo, and contingent on slow-moving legislation.

The authors discuss the commonly mentioned but underexplained virtue of “thinking like a child.” They define this as the tendency to look at the smaller parts of a problem without overvaluing complexity, which comes at the expense of ignoring the obvious. This section laments that looking at problems with simplistic tools and frames is disparaged, remarking that small questions are ignored because they are considered too trivial or obvious to unpack. As an anecdotal example, they talk about the phenomena of the lottery and other gambling behaviors, which are usually unprofitable and psychologically harmful but perpetuated by people’s willful ignorance. The authors also assert that it is extremely important to enjoy one’s work, especially while in a structured environment.

Next, the authors turn to problems that solve themselves. They use the metaphor of the “self-weeding garden,” giving examples of cases where individuals trying to extract information from liars merely used patience to wait until fragments of truth were revealed. Here, the authors refer to the story of King Solomon, who made an empty threat to kill a baby in order to find out its true mother. The authors further explore how to persuade individuals who desire to maintain their beliefs. They break down how to construct a good and convincing argument by referring to the text itself, revealing that the previous chapters were building blocks of a larger thesis.

Levitt and Dubner close their book with an exhortation to not feel bad about quitting. They unpack why people quit in real life: a fear of social rejection, the fallacy of being discouraged by a sunk cost, and the inability to see adjacent opportunities. The authors assert that quitting a project frees up brain activity for a new task, which is what real problem solving consists of.

Looking at problem solving from a meta level, Levitt and Dubner show that there are many ways to simplify and isolate problems in the world, most of which follow a few key axioms that relate to having an open and vigilant mind. They put a spin on the seemingly derogatory label of being a “freak,” showing that difference is valuable and, in fact, drives all the innovation we see in the world.