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8 Ways That You Can Think Outside The Box Like Freakonomics

8 Ways That You Can Think Outside The Box Like Freakonomics

Sometimes, the most unusual of collaborations can produce the most spectacular results. This was certainly the case in 2005, when author Stephen J. Dubner and economist Steven D. Levitt joined forces to co-author the ground-breaking work Freakonomics. This book, which sold a staggering 5.5 million copies in more than 40 languages, was the first in a series that has combined unique and personal narratives with unconventional analysis to explore the benefits of innovative thinking.

The Freakonomics series has created a blueprint for thinking outside the box, and encouraged loyal readers to identify entirely new methods of solving their problems. Whether these relate to major global reforms or the issues that complicate everyday life, Dubner’s and Levitt’s literature has revolutionized thought processes and changed the boundaries of possibility for citizens from across the land.

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    With this in mind, what are the pivotal lessons that can be taken from the Freakonomics series and how can they be applied in your everyday life? Let’s consider the following 8 ways you can think outside the box like Freakonomics.

    1. You can say ‘I Don’t Know’

    A common theme that has ran throughout the Freakonomics series is that the majority of issues are more complex than they initially seem. We do not generally acknowledge this fact which subsequently creates a learning gap that can affect us negatively as we grow older. This is why the latest book in the series, Think like a Freak, has dedicated an entire chapter that encourages individuals to say ‘I don’t know’ on a more frequent basis and open up their minds to new information and understanding. This is particularly important when discussing environmental issues, as Dubner claims that such an outlook would prevent individuals from “getting on one side of the debate and digging in their heels” without a comprehensive understanding of the topic in question.

    2. You can think Small and Still Succeed

    This taps into another prolific section of the Think like a Freak book, which implores readers not to abandon their childlike instincts as they enter adulthood. After all, it is the child’s capacity for open-mindedness and curiosity that makes them able to absorb information in their infancy, while their ability to think small and without inhibition also enables them to conceive viable solutions for problems. The concept of simple and uninhibited thinking has been embodied by the brand Pokerstars, which employed hard working and renowned sporting legends such as Ronaldo and Rafael Nadal as brand ambassadors as a way of driving recognition, challenging existing misconceptions and transcending the industry in which they operate. By selecting a relatively simple and bold solution to a problematic marketing issue, the brand embraced childlike instincts to achieve success.

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    3. You can live with Risk Easier than Regret

    While it may be argued that bold and simplistic decision making can incur risks, this is not necessarily something that should be feared. One of the most persuasive arguments of the whole Freakonomics series is that risk represents an easier burden to carry than regret, as the latter occurs as a result of failing to take a chance due to fear or an innate sense of inhibition. This can only ever create uncertainty and leave you wondering what might have been, and while risk takers may ultimately succeed or fail they have a clear conscious and the knowledge that they have at least tried to achieve their goals. So when making a decision, it may be worth re-evaluating the process and considering which option you would end up regretting if you failed to take it.

    4. You Can Flip a Coin to make Important Decisions

    For complex decisions that also affect others, such as relocating or changing careers, your thought process is likely to be even more confused and convoluted. In these instances, flipping a coin can be an excellent way of helping you to achieve clarity and choose a finite path. This theory was tested on a website called Freakonomics Experiments, which invited visitors to share their dilemmas and offered to flip a coin on their behalf. While this may seem fanciful, more than 40,000 visitors have taken the plunge and many found that they were more content when the coin encouraged them to follow a particular path. In contrast, others choose to ignore the coin toss as they instinctively believed the call to be wrong for them. It is therefore clear that the result of the coin toss is inconsequential, as the intuitive sense of clarity and insight that it brings enables individuals to make an informed decision.

    5. You can conduct a ‘Premortem’ when considering Options

    There is a fine line between thoughtfulness and over analysis, and it is important to achieve a balance when making decisions. This is something that is considered in detail in Think like a Freak, where the authors reference a theory forwarded by leading psychologist Gary Klein. Using something that he refers to as a “premortem“, it is possible for individuals to give careful consideration to their upcoming decision in a way that creates clarity rather than confusion. More specifically, by thinking ahead into the future and imagining that your decision has produced little but abject failure, you can pinpoint exactly where issues are likely to occur and how easy it will be to avoid them. This will enable you to develop a balanced view of the risks involved, before determining whether or not it is a decision that should be delayed or discarded in favour of an alternative option.

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    6. You can disregard the Majority of Conventional Wisdom

    In Freakonomics, the authors discussed the concept of conventional wisdom at length and concurred that it is generally either wrong or biased towards the views of the writer. The main reason for this, they argue, is that the experts who generate conventional wisdom are inclined to use their knowledge and informational advantage to articulate their own agenda or express an informed opinion. It can also be used to create sensationalism regarding a social or political issue, and Freakonomics uses the example of drug dealers to make its point. While experts present the illicit drug trade as being extremely immoral and driven by individuals who generate huge financial gains, for example, in reality it is little more than a capitalist enterprise where the majority of workers earn less than the minimum wage. This is something to bear in mind when evaluating information and it reinforces the importance of developing knowledge and forming your own, unique opinions.

    7. You can be sure that Correlation does not Always Mean Causation

    As the Freakonomics series has continued, the authors have moved away from their economic basis and focused more predominantly on social science. This is reflected in one of their core principles, which is that correlation does not directly imply causation. It is a common misconception that when two variables change in the same manner at the same time, one is automatically responsible for triggering this evolution. This is not the case, however, and despite this being a fundamental finding of social scientific research it is often ignored. In any case where two or more variables in your life begin to change simultaneously, it is always worth addressing the circumstances on their own individual merit and identifying any other factors that may be responsible.

    8. You can become too Preoccupied with End Results rather than the Process of Achieving them

    The Freakonomics brand is now huge, and includes Dubner’s radio show in addition to a blog, film and additional literature. Dubner references his own radio show in the most recent book, and says that he is often disturbed at how fans evaluate an event or debate and “look at its conclusion rather than the process of getting there“. To illustrate this, he presents the example of a discussion where it was suggested that hitting a pedestrian with a car has surprisingly few consequences in the modern world. This was met with acclaim by pedestrian advocates, despite the fact the same demographic had criticised Dubner for suggesting that “drunk walking” may be a huge factor in the rate of automotive accidents. In short, we have a tendency to celebrate occasions where people reach similar conclusions to ourselves, without considering the discussion in its wider context and the process of arriving at such an assertion.

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    Featured photo credit: Suzi Duke via flickr.com

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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