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Dubner on Thinking Like a Freak

If you have read Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt’s work Freakonomics, Super Freakonomics, or Think Like a Freak, you probably have a good idea of what it means to “think like a freak.” This is method Dubner and Levitt utilize on a daily basis, and it allows them to find ways of exploring the “hidden side of everything” by using economic analysis to explain everyday decisions and happenings. When the BC Economics Association announced that they were hosting an event with Dubner as the guest speaker, I knew it would be worth attending.

freakradioHaving read Freakonomics, Super Freakonomics, and listened to the Freakonomics podcast, the talk Dubner presented on Tuesday sounds familiar. But for those who haven’t done themselves a favor by buying and subscribing to Dubner’s body of work, this was an eye-opening experience.

Dubner talked about the prevalence of artificial insemination in the turkey industry, the ROI gained by attending college versus buying a falsified diploma for a quarter of the cost in a single year of attendance (a semester at Boston College), and the risk of causing death when walking home drunk versus driving.

Dubner explains that the turkey has been bred so aggressively by humans in order to grow their breasts, that turkeys can no longer naturally reproduce- they’re breasts are too large. And death is more likely when walking home drunk. Granted, you’re more likely to cause your own death, but even when considering any death, walking home drunk was still five times more likely to produce one.

Dubner presented all of these ideas as a way of peaking the audience’s interest, but also to show the immense complexities that “thinking like a freak” presents for the academic. While all of these findings are incredibly interesting, Dubner discussed how he would often think of an idea, but lack the research on the topic to draw accurate conclusions.

Dubner also talked about the many factors, both independent and dependent, that one must monitor when using this “freak” method of analysis- bringing economics to the every day activity.

Before transitioning to the Q&A portion of his talk, Dubner delved into incentives, and how incentives can be utilized to change behavior for the better. The major example Dubner used to explain this difficulty was Cedars-Sinai Hospital, a leading hospital in Los Angeles, CA.

18k2c4bjygau8jpgHere, a committee attempted to raise the hand-washing rate at Cedars-Sinai Hospital from the considerably low rate of 60% to their desired rate of 100%. This shouldn’t be hard to do considering your subjects are prominent doctors, right?

Wrong. Talking to the staff about the importance of hand hygiene failed to increase compliance. Offering incentives—$10 Starbucks gift cards—failed as well. And the method that worked to achieve 100% compliance was simply changing the screensaver on the doctors’ computers to a microscopic view of the doctors’ unwashed hands.

Here, Dubner notes the incredible time it took to change this seemingly obvious behavioral change for the better, and how difficult it really is to change human behavior. Here, Dubner doesn’t give up on the idea of using incentives to alter behavior, but he stresses the difficulty in finding the correct one.

While a lot of this may not have been new or fresh to the individual who has read and listened to Dubner before, it was still an amazing opportunity to see him present at Boston College. It’s people like Stephen Dubner that should be leading presentations, and it’s people like Dubner that draw a huge crowd to collectively learn and discuss.

As evidenced by the impressive crowd on Tuesday night, I would say Dubner was the perfect incentive to draw people away from their daily routines, listen to an accomplished author talk about his work, and start a process of “thinking like a freak” to further engage the listener long after the talk ends.

If you want to learn more about Dubner and Freakonomics, you can listen to the Freakonomics podcast here.

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