What is the correlation between a person’s name and their success? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? Is there a relationship between abortion and crime rates? Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s popular Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics are literary masterpieces, applying economic concepts to everyday life to reach amazing conclusions. Unfortunately, the newest installment of the series, Think Like a Freak, falls somewhat short of this high standard and is a tedious, mediocre read.
Designed to train readers in the art of asking Freakonomics-type questions, Think Like a Freak is essentially an instructional book. It offers critical suggestions on ways to analyze the world (by thinking like a child, as chapter five asserts) and even tells readers when they should give up (when opportunity costs outweigh sunk costs). While the idea of instructing readers is a great intention, it is poorly executed throughout the pages of this report. To truly get people to change their behavior or adopt a new habit or think in a new way, they must be inspired with stories, examples, and thorough analysis. Because Think Like a Freak does not adequately incorporate this style, it reads more like a boring to-do list than an inspirational exposé.
However, the main shortcoming of this book is its lack of unique case studies and examples. While Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics were full of interesting chapters that made readers laugh out loud and think about a dilemma critically, Think Like a Freak essentially contains only one extended example. It is a profile of Takeru Kobayashi, a college-educated, Japanese man who decided to channel his intelligence and appetite into the sport of competitive eating. Kobi trained relentlessly to eventually win the Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest by consuming 50 hot dogs and buns in just 12 minutes. To reach success, he approached the sport by asking himself “How can I make hot dogs easier to eat?” instead of simply “How can I eat more hot dogs?” Kobi’s story is successfully used as a fascinating, illustrative example of approaching the problem in a new way. Unfortunately, it is the only such case study in the book and cannot redeem the remainder of the novel.
While overall short on contextual meaning, one thing that Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner did excellently was incorporate humor throughout. The book is written in a light-hearted tone with plenty of self-deprecating jokes. The authors share everything from their disastrous experience making people’s life-changing decisions with a coin toss to their disdain for Winston Churchill’s famous quote on never giving up. Humor is a small element of writing that makes a big difference, and this book was more enjoyable because of it.
One of the most highly anticipated books of 2014, Think Like a Freak was a bit of a disappointment. Readers can analyze everything from cheating sumo wrestlers to global cooling in Levitt and Dubner’s bestselling first two books, but, considering incentives and cost-benefit analysis, this one is best left on the shelf.