In 2006, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner wrote the huge bestseller Freakonomics and followed it up in 2009 with Superfreakonomics and now bring us Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain. In the first two books, Levitt and Dubner used economics theories to address various questions about our world. They have received thousands of questions from readers who wanted them to apply their methods to problems faced by those readers. After giving the matter some thought (they obviously couldn’t answer everyone’s questions), they decided to share how to “think like a freak” so that people can better work out their own answers. The result is another fascinating read that may help readers to think more creatively.

First, they address the issue of exactly what they mean by “thinking like a freak”, then move on to how hard it is to say “I don’t know” and how terribly important and useful it is to do so anyway.

Next, things get tougher. Chapter 3 is titled “What’s Your Problem” and concerns the issue of knowing exactly what question to ask. In other words, how to define the problem. For example, “What’s wrong with our schools>” is a question often asked because children don’t seem to be learning all they should. But the question “Why do American kids know less than kids from Estonia and Poland?” frames the problem in an entirely different way and opens up possibilities outside of school. So, instead of looking for problems in schools, you set out to compare what is different (aside from schools) in those countries. Poverty? Parenting? Healthcare? And so it goes. The first thing to do to solve a problem is to properly define the parameters. Of course, Levitt and Dubner are terrific writers and storytellers, so (believe me) they explain all this in a much more engaging manner than I have here.

The following chapters develop the idea of how to approach problems with a more open and creative mindset and then move on to the wonders of incentives and how to use them to motivate people. There’s a particularly interesting bit there about a charity that managed to cut their expenses and increase donations by promising not to ask for future donations. They did a mailing with a reply card with three boxes, labeled (in brief) This will be my only gift, don’t ask again or Just contact me twice a year or Please keep me up to date. Oddly, only about a third of responders picked the first option and the rest wanted to be contacted with some frequency. So, they saved all the money they would have spent repeatedly contacting the third who opted out, and still increased donations by 46 percent! They go on to explain why they believe the tactic worked, which is pretty interesting itself.

I’ll close with a real “ah ha!” moment the book had for me. Along with most people, my email spam box fills regularly with Nigerian scam junk. I have often wondered “Why the heck do they say they’re Nigerian? Everyone knows this is a scam!” Of course, had I been thinking like a freak, I would have known the answer. Ahem. Not everybody knows it’s a scam and some people are just extremely gullible and compliant. What better way to maximize your efforts in con artistry than by targeting only the people who are likely to take your bait!? If you send out 100,000 letters and maybe 5,000 people are intrigued enough to write back, but become suspicious after a few emails back and forth, you’ve expended a lot of time and energy for no profit. If, however, you send out 100,000 letters and just 10 credulous and accommodating people respond and give you all their money without hesitation, which would you prefer to do? Picture here a forehead slap and a “Wow! I could have had a V-8!” moment.

I heartily recommend reading this one, and I’m going to do my best to Think Like a Freak from here on out.