I received Think Like a Freak, the third book in the Freakonomics series (following Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics) as a gift a while back, and finally got around to reading it.

As laid out by the title, this book differs a bit from Levitt and Dubner’s previous books in that it sets out to teach the reader how to “think like a freak”. Here’s an excerpt that explains what it means to think like a freak:

We’d like to bury the idea that there’s a right way and a wrong way, a smart way and a foolish way, a red way and a blue way. The modern world demands that we all think a bit more productively, more creatively, more rationally; that we think from a different angle, with a different set of muscles, with a different set of expectations; that we think with neither fear nor favor, with neither blind optimism nor sour skepticism. That we think like - ahem - a Freak.

Each chapter follows the same basic format. Through a series of stories (Levitt and Dubner later write that storytelling is a good method of persuasion), each chapter demonstrates a different technique employed by “Freaks”.

Although I found many of the broader messages on thinking like a freak not particularly memorable, I did enjoy many of the stories and examples told throughout the book. These stories were often anecdotes, pieces of research conducted by the authors or other academics, or mini experiments run by the authors.

One of the examples I found interesting was research on why Nigerian scam emails are seemingly so unbelievable, conducted by Cormac Herley, a computer scientist at Microsoft Research. In the words of Wikipedia, these scams are characterized by the “apparently comical, almost ludicrous nature of the promise of West African riches from a Nigerian Prince.” As outlined in Think Like a Freak, Herley explains that the absurd nature of these emails claiming to be from Nigerian princes is an advantage to the scammer, because only the most gullible of recipients replies. If the scammers began with a more believable email, they would receive way too many replies and would be unable to filter down to the people who would ultimately send the money. By making the email so outlandish, they are essentially inviting the most easily persuadable people to come forward and identify themselves.

One lesson I take away from this bit of research is that many seemingly stupid behaviors aren’t. But the broader approach Levitt and Dubner were trying to advocate was getting people to inadvertently admit something to you. Another example came from David Lee Roth, lead singer of Van Halen. He had lengthy technical and security specs that a hosting venue had to follow for all live performances. How did he ensure they were all followed? One requirement was no brown M&M’s backstage. Instead of inspecting the entire technical setup, Roth could simply look and see if there were brown M&M’s, and therefore learn whether all the detailed instructions had been read.

Think Like a Freak contains many such interesting stories and is a light and enjoyable read. However, one thing that left me curious was the continued glorification of Intellectual Ventures [1], a company that has been widely criticized for being a “patent troll” [2]. There is likely a portion of Intellectual Ventures that is indeed doing noteworthy and positive work. That the patent troll controversy is not mentioned in Think Like a Freak - not even in the extensive notes section - is a disappointing omission [3].

And this leads to a broader criticism about Think Like a Freak. Instead of a surface level discussion of how Intellectual Ventures handles failed projects, I would have preferred to hear Levitt and Dubner’s take on the firm’s roll as a “mass aggregator” of patents, and patent trolls as a whole.

More generally, in Think Like a Freak, Levitt and Dubner took a step away from unique perspectives on more substantial policy debates. Perhaps this is a response to the ultimately negative media attention generated from their position on global warming in Superfreakonomics (Levitt stands by what was written but admits that they “lost the media battle on the topic”). But to me it felt like they had less underlying source material to work with in Think Like a Freak than in the first two books.

As a high school student with no interest in economics, I was drawn to Freakonomics precisely because the off-beat topics interested me. I probably would not have picked up a book that discussed patent law, for example. Nonetheless, at this point in time, I would rather hear more substantive topics discussed.

In the final chapter of Think Like a Freak, the under-recognized merits of quitting are discussed. Levitt and Dubner ponder whether or not they will write a fourth book in the series, or “quit”. If they do, I’ll still likely read it, but it won’t be at the top of my reading list.

[1] Intellectual Ventures was also lauded in SuperFreakonomics.

[2] See Wikipedia entry on Intellectual Ventures

[3] Dubner was clearly aware of the allegations against Intellectual Ventures prior to the publication of Think Like a Freak.