The purveyors of provocative logic return, with Super Freakonomics
By Chris Penttila UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO economist Steven D. Levitt and award-winning journalist Stephen J. Dubner had a lot of incentive to write another book. Four years ago, their thought- provoking debut, Freakonomics, took on the conventional wisdoms of everyday life, looked at them in a new way and showed how incen- tives drive our decisions. Sometimes controver- sial but always entertaining, Freakonomics has old more than 4 million copies in 35 languages. Now they’re back with their eagerly awaited
follow-up, Super Freakonomics (William
Morrow/An Imprint of HarperCollins). The
Connection had the opportunity recently to get
super-freaky with Costco members Levitt and
Dubner and talk about what drives them.
Steven D. Levitt (left) and Stephen J.
Dubner connect seemingly unrelated
trends to analyze economics.
What attracts you to certain economic or
Levitt: The best questions for us are the questions that are heavily endowed with a moral
or an ethical component, because when you
have those questions where people really are
so worried about morality or social norms,
they tend to stop thinking about the facts.
Somebody like us can come in and take a
hard-nosed, data-driven, sensible look at
what’s really happening.
back and forth and make you realize that there’s
a lot of uncertainty in conventional wisdom.
How do you counter the stereotype that
economics is dry, boring, all about numbers
and not at all about people?
Dubner: I’m probably the target audience for
that question because I used to think pretty
similarly. [What we do is] really a way of analyzing human behavior and incentives, and
instead of applying that thinking toward the
stock market or the macro economy, applying
it to things like how the average business
owner decides how to incentivize employees,
how the average family decides to raise their
children and so on. It’s meant to be fun.
Levitt: The fact that we can turn it on its head
and change it from a frightening, foreign
mathematical concept into really commonsense ideas that are fun, and are relevant.
“There are so many
fascinating things in the
world to explore if you use
a different method of
looking at things.”
How do we arrive at these perceptions in the
Levitt: Virtually everything that I’ve ever tried
to confirm that my mother taught me was
wrong, and yet I still cling to [those] things. I
think a lot of people are like that. The world’s
complicated. We’re busy people, we don’t have
time to think about every little thing and so we
rely on the media and our parents and our
friends to give us an idea of how the world
works. But so often, it’s just mythology.
—Steven D. Levitt
You talk a lot about the value of incentives in
your books. What can business owners learn
Levitt: The more I’ve been working with
companies, the more I’ve become convinced
that the best incentives are not financial but
are related to doing what it takes to have
employees really believe in the mission of
what the company’s trying to accomplish.
Why write a second book?
Levitt: There are so many fascinating things
in the world to explore if you use a different
method of looking at things. Our method
involves using data and the “economic
approach” to try to understand human behavior, and to try to solve problems. One thing
that really drove us to write this second book
was the desire to highlight how history is full
of cases in which complicated and frightening
problems were often solved by cheap and
simple fixes. It was a great inspiration.
Have you been surprised by the uproar
over certain conclusions you’ve reached in
Dubner: We were surprised [by] things in the
first book that people were not upset about,
like teacher cheating. The global-warming
push-back so far is not at all surprising, only
because they’ve been shouting at each other
for 10, 20 years. So the minute you say the
words “global warming” you immediately are
inviting a very small but very noisy group of
people to start shouting.
Are there ways that people can look at
things differently to get ahead in their careers
Levitt: It’s always a good idea to try to
approach problems differently than other
people do, because if you don’t you’re always
going to be guaranteed to be average.
The Costco Connection
Super Freakonomics is available at most
In your first book, you wrote that conventional wisdom is wrong. Is it still wrong?
Levitt: Not all conventional wisdom is wrong.
It changes all the time. Conventional wisdom
used to be that breastfeeding was discouraged
and children should use formula, and then it
goes back to breastfeeding. These things go
In the introduction of Super Freakonomics,
you write that you want people to question
Dubner: Personally, I’m suspicious of any
book that tells me, “Here’s how I think about
an issue, and here’s how I want you to think
about it, too.” C
Chris Penttila is a freelance business journalist
and columnist for Entrepreneur.com.