Freakonomics. Magnolia Pictures, 2010.
When I read the book several years ago, a whole new world opened up to me. It was an experience of feeling like scales had fallen from my eyes and I could see things that weren’t previously visible. That experience has faded over the years, and so I was thrilled to have the sense of insight be resurrected in watching this film.
There are brilliant insights into the complex nature of human behavior that are hidden right in front of us and it takes economists–who are in many ways behaviorists–to crunch the data and report their findings to bring these insights to light. It is still up to us to interpret the findings, but we should be ever grateful for their work. From there, it is our responsibility to, for the rest of our lives, be reminded how seductive first impressions of correlation are, and to rise above, dig below, and push beyond our instinctive impulse to get at truth.
This is also extremely important to leadership and organizational psychology. While many have understood incentives as being salaries and benefits, we must also understand other causal realities for how the people within your organization behaves. Misunderstanding those causal realities could have negative repercussions on the people and the organization as a whole. The idea that Mayor Rudy Giuliani can claim credit for lower crime rates may be great political fodder, but as was depicted, misses the truth. And it is that truth that matters, for if we are to truly address the problems in our world, the ethics that are compromised, and the ideals we want to attain, we must have 10 seconds of humility to simply ask a few questions like an economist.
Below are some of my favorite quotes from the film.
Incentives matter. And if you can figure out what those incentives are, you’ve got a good chance at guessing how they’re going to behave.
You can teach a kid as much in a grocery store as in a museum. Maybe more.
My entire academic life has been devoted to figuring out tricky ways to get at causality because the world doesn’t just offer you causality. What you see in the world is correlation. What the world gives you is, things are moving together or they aren’t. But to be useful, you need to dive down, to be able to strip away what is causing what and what is not causing what.
By the time you have a kid, the choices that you make that will make you a good parent, you’ve already made them. So if you go to the store and buy 10 parenting books, that’s probably not going to help the kid very much. But the fact that you’re the kind of person who as a parent cares enough to go buy 10 parenting books, that probably means you’re a really good parent. I just don’t think the books are going to have a magic effect.
Truth can be hidden forever in the darkness.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant. – Louis Brandeis
In Shinto, the mirror is an important symbol, reflecting a sense of who we are. In that mirror a bad heart is a hidden heart, the pure heart is one that hides nothing. Looking at the numbers and accepting what they tell us is a way of wiping dust away from the mirror.
So, if Levitt is not advocating abortion as a crime fighting tool, what is he advocating? Well, whether one is pro-life or pro-choice, or somewhere in-between, there is a meaningful, and today, an unimpeached connection between giving women the right to choose and a reduction in crime.
But we kind of give people permission to challenge conventional wisdom at times and to ask a different kind of question entirely. A lot of times the questions are sort of the questions you asked as children, and people kinda chuckle at you, and once in a while they turn out to be pretty good. The problem is that as you get older, and you ask them as adults, if you’re in a meeting with your friends or whatever, and they laugh at you hard, and you just kinda stop asking those kinds of questions entirely. And we just kinda keep doing it. What if this thing that everyone thinks is so really isn’t so, or what if that didn’t cause this, what if this caused it? And I think there just needs to be a lot more permission for people to think like that.