BOUND TO PLEASE / Understanding the obvious using some common sense

The Japan News

By Heather Howard / Japan News Staff WriterThink Like a Freak

By Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Allen Lane, 288pp

Oh, so that’s why those Nigerian scam e-mails keep coming, with their outrageous promises of million-dollar payoffs that only the most gullible dimwits on the planet would fall for.

The answer is wonderfully simple — the senders are specifically looking for the most gullible dimwits on the planet, because they’re the people most likely to go all the way and actually send those lowlifes money. In more scientific terms, the scammers are trying to reduce their false positives.

That’s the kind of quirky insight to be found in “Think Like a Freak,” the latest book from “Freakonomics” authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. The title sums it up — this time Levitt and Dubner encourage readers to apply their methods to a variety of situations, and they illustrate how through the kind of entertaining stories and numerical backup data that have made their names.

One of those stories stars “ogui” eating contest champion Takeru Kobayashi of Japan.

In his very first year at the Nathan’s international hot dog eating contest on Coney Island in New York, Kobayashi came within a hair of doubling the competition’s then record for the number of hot dogs consumed in 12 minutes. Brace yourself: He catapulted the figure from 25 and one-eighth to a whopping 50. With buns.

Levitt and Dubner point to two Freak principles at work in Kobayashi’s success. One, he refused to accept other people’s ideas about what was possible. Kobayashi ignored the previous record, telling himself that his competitors were asking the wrong question about eating hot dogs.

Redefining that question, i.e., the problem he was trying to solve, is the second Freak principle, as Kobayashi shifted from “How do I consume more hot dogs?” to “How do I make hot dogs easier to eat?”

By ... no, no, we won’t spoil any more fun here. Suffice it to say the answer includes King Solomon, vegetable oil and something called the “Kobayashi Shake.”

Tale after tale like this pulls you through the book, a swift yet often thought-provoking read. Some Freak principles are disheartening but difficult to refute given the abundance of evidence human beings present, particularly Levitt and Dubner’s argument that financial incentives and peer pressure are usually far more effective than appealing to people’s sense of right and wrong.

Others are literally fun — the authors recommend introducing more enjoyment to encourage better behavior in such serious areas of life as saving money and giving to charity. Obvious? Maybe so, but “Think Like a Freak” itself points out in Chapter 1 that Levitt and Dubner’s approach “usually traffics in the obvious and places a huge premium on common sense.”

Given how rarely the obvious and common sense are applied in this world, we could all stand to be reminded of their value. Especially in a format as enjoyable as this.

Best place to read

On the sofa at home, with an understanding partner who doesn’t mind hearing, “Hey, listen to this ...” every 10 minutes or so.

Maruzen price: ¥2,420 plus tax (as of Oct. 16, 2014)Speech

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