Book Review: Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt

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Freakonomics is a book that uses economic analysis to examine ordinary situations, such as online dating and buying a house. 

The book shows that our decision-making process is often irrational and that conventional wisdom is often incorrect. It also explains why we are motivated to do certain things.

This book review provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

Key Insights

Lesson 1: Incentives can affect people’s behavior in unexpected ways.

We all know that incentives can be used to encourage certain behaviors. After all, parents reward their children for doing their schoolwork and companies offer bonuses to employees who reach certain sales targets. However, have you ever thought about the complexities involved in using incentives to influence behavior?

Believe it or not, small changes in incentives can sometimes have unexpected effects. For instance, let’s look at the day care centers in Haifa, Israel. In an effort to reduce parents’ late pickups, the centers introduced a small fine of $3 as a disincentive. But guess what? The number of late pickups actually doubled after the fine was introduced.

How could this be? Well, it’s possible that the amount of the fine was too small to be effective, or that the fine replaced the moral disincentive of parental guilt for arriving late. With the fine in place, parents could simply pay the fee instead of feeling guilty about being late.

Now, here’s the kicker: once a signal has been sent, its effects cannot be undone. Even after the fines were removed, the number of late pickups did not decrease. This shows that it can be challenging to set incentives effectively, especially when other incentives are already in place.

So, the next time you’re considering introducing new incentives, it’s important to carefully consider whether they might interfere with or replace existing ones.

Lesson 2: Different situations call for different incentives.

It seems like honesty might not always be the best policy – at least, not when it comes to paying for those tasty office bagels. We all know that robbing a bank is a terrible idea (seriously, don’t do it), but even something as simple as paying for a snack can reveal some interesting insights into human behavior.

Enter Paul Feldman, the bagel man. Feldman’s daily routine involved collecting cash and leftover bagels from an unattended cash box, relying on the honesty of his customers to pay up. But as it turns out, honesty can be a fickle thing, influenced by a range of external factors.

For example, did you know that unseasonably warm weather can make people more likely to pay for their bagels? Or that stressful holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving can actually decrease payment rates? It seems that people’s moods and levels of stress can have a big impact on their willingness to fork over a few bucks for a mid-morning snack.

But it’s not all bad news for Feldman and his bagel business. Happy offices with good morale are more likely to have honest customers, and even tragic events like 9/11 can increase empathy and therefore payment rates.

So what does all of this mean? Well, it just goes to show that incentives are a tricky thing to navigate. What works one day might not work the next, and personal circumstances can have a big impact on how people behave. But at the end of the day, it’s always best to err on the side of honesty – unless, of course, you’re a bank robber. In that case, maybe stick to a more honest line of work.

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Lesson 3: Experts may exploit laypeople for economic gain by leveraging their informational advantages.

Let’s face it: we’ve all been there. You want to sell your home, but you’re not sure what it’s worth or how to get the best price. So, you turn to a real estate agent. They have the specialized knowledge and experience to guide you through the complex process of selling a house, and that can be a huge relief.

But here’s the thing: experts aren’t always looking out for our best interests. In fact, sometimes they’re more concerned with their own profits than with getting us the best deal. Take real estate agents, for example. While they may have access to a lot of information about market trends and prices, their primary motivation is often to close the sale as quickly as possible.

This can create a conflict of interest. On the one hand, you want to get the best price for your home. On the other hand, your agent is motivated to close the deal, even if it means accepting a lower offer. And let’s not forget about the commission. While agents do receive a percentage of the final sale price, it’s often not enough to outweigh the benefits of closing the sale quickly.

So, what can you do to protect yourself? First of all, be aware of this potential conflict of interest. Remember that your agent’s interests may not align perfectly with your own. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and make sure you understand the process. And if you’re not comfortable with the advice you’re getting, don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion.

Finally, remember that you are the one in control. You have the final say on whether or not to accept an offer. Don’t let anyone pressure you into making a decision you’re not comfortable with. Selling a home can be a stressful and emotional process, but with a little bit of knowledge and a lot of confidence, you can get the best deal possible.

Lesson 4: Experts have the ability to exploit the fear of non-experts in order to deceive or defraud them.

Dealing with the unknown can feel like exploring uncharted territory without a map. It can be intimidating and overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. You see, experts often prey on your fear of the unknown to manipulate you into making decisions you’ll later regret. From car salesmen to real estate agents, fear can cloud our judgment and lead us to make choices we wouldn’t normally make.

Stockbrokers might pressure you to invest in a particular stock, claiming it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. However, it’s essential to remember that fear-based decisions often lead to bad outcomes.

Funeral arrangements are another area where fear can lead to exploitation. Funeral directors may try to capitalize on your anxiety and pressure you into purchasing an expensive casket. It’s crucial to be aware of any tactics that may be used to take advantage of your emotions.

So, how do you protect yourself? Research is key. By doing your homework and gathering information beforehand, you’ll be able to make informed decisions confidently. Don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion or take a step back and evaluate the situation calmly.

Remember, knowledge is power. The more informed you are, the less likely you are to fall prey to fear-based tactics.

Lesson 5: Experts’ informational advantage has been greatly reduced by the Internet.

Have you ever wondered why life insurance prices dropped significantly in the 1990s? Well, it’s not because the insurance companies suddenly became more generous or decided to give discounts to their customers. The real reason behind this was the emergence of the internet and the birth of price comparison websites that revolutionized the way we shop for insurance policies.

Gone are the days when you had to spend countless hours on the phone with insurance agents, filling out paperwork and comparing prices manually. With the advent of the internet, customers can now easily compare insurance quotes from multiple companies in just a few clicks. This easy access to information has helped to level the playing field, giving consumers the power to make informed decisions about their insurance policies.

As more and more customers began to take advantage of this newfound transparency, insurance companies were forced to compete with each other on price. The more expensive companies had to lower their prices to remain competitive, leading to an overall decrease in the cost of policies across the board.

The internet has also helped to reduce information asymmetry, which is when one party has more information than the other, giving them an unfair advantage. By providing easy access to information, the internet has given consumers a better understanding of what they should pay and what should be included in their insurance policies.

The benefits of the internet extend far beyond the insurance industry. Whether you’re buying a house or a car, you can use the internet to research and determine a fair price.

Lesson 6: Customers frequently jump to negative conclusions when sellers choose to withhold information.

Let’s face it: information is power. And when one party has more information than the other, an information asymmetry can occur. But even the perception of a lack of information can have a significant impact on various aspects of life.

Take the example of a brand new car. You may think you’re making a smart investment, but as soon as you drive it off the lot, the value drops by up to 25%. That’s right, a car worth $20,000 yesterday may only be worth $15,000 today. Why? Well, it’s all about information asymmetry. The dealer knows the car’s true value, but you, the buyer, do not. So you end up paying more than the car is actually worth.

The same principle applies to the stock market. If a stock suddenly drops in value, it could be due to an information asymmetry. The seller knows something the buyer does not, so the buyer assumes the worst and sells off their stock. Even if the stock is perfectly fine, the seller may still be penalized.

But it’s not just financial transactions that are affected by information asymmetry. Even online dating can be impacted. If you don’t include a photo of yourself, potential matches may assume the worst and make negative assumptions about you. In this case, the missing information is your appearance, and it can be just as powerful as any other type of information.

So, what can we do about information asymmetry? It’s not always possible to know everything, but we can be mindful of what information we share and what others may expect. By being aware of potential information gaps, we can work to fill them and ensure a more level playing field. And in a world where information is power, that’s a pretty powerful lesson.

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Lesson 7: People tend to worry excessively about risks that are particularly prominent or beyond their control.

We all like to think that we make logical decisions based on facts and figures, but sometimes our brains can lead us astray. That’s because we tend to be influenced by the ease with which we can imagine a risk. If we hear about plane crashes or terrorist attacks in the news, they start to feel more common than they really are, and we overestimate the likelihood of those events happening to us.

Let me give you an example to illustrate this point. Imagine that you have two options for your child to play at a friend’s house – one has a swimming pool, and the other has a gun. Which one would you feel safer about? Most people would say they’re more worried about the gun, since the idea of a child being shot is incredibly unsettling. However, the truth is that accidents involving swimming pools are far more likely to result in injury or death for a child than gun accidents.

Another way our emotions can cloud our judgment is by making us more afraid of certain risks than others. For instance, some people might be more scared of flying than driving because they feel more in control behind the wheel. However, the risk of dying in a car crash is the same as the risk of dying in a plane crash.

To make rational decisions, it’s crucial to be aware of our biases and to seek out reliable information about risks.


1. Provocative and Surprising Conclusions

One of the most compelling aspects of Freakonomics is how the authors arrive at their conclusions. They often start with a question that seems simple and straightforward but then take it in a direction that you would never have expected.

Their research and analysis are grounded in real-world data, and their conclusions challenge the conventional wisdom. Whether it’s the correlation between legalized abortion and crime rates or the unexpected reasons why drug dealers still live with their mothers, Levitt and Dubner’s insights will make you question everything you thought you knew.

2. Storytelling with Real Data

Levitt and Dubner are excellent storytellers. They use real data to support their arguments and weave a compelling narrative that keeps you engaged from beginning to end. They take complex economic concepts and make them accessible to readers who may not have a background in economics. Their writing style is clear, concise, and witty, making Freakonomics an enjoyable read that you won’t want to put down.

3. Challenging the Experts

Another important aspect of Freakonomics is how it challenges the so-called experts in our society. From real estate agents to financial advisors, Levitt and Dubner expose the hidden incentives that drive these professionals and how they often put their own interests ahead of their clients. They reveal how information asymmetry can work against us and how we can protect ourselves from those who have more knowledge than we do.


1. Redundancy

One of the most significant issues with Freakonomics is its tendency to repeat the same point over and over again. Levitt’s arguments could have been presented in half as many pages, making the book a lot less tedious to read. The endless repetition distracts the reader from the fascinating insights that the book offers.

2. Awkward Self-Promotion

I don’t like the way in which Levitt’s co-author, Stephen Dubner, constantly praises Levitt throughout the book. The endless stream of accolades for Levitt feels forced and awkward, almost as if Dubner is trying too hard to convince readers of Levitt’s brilliance. The book would have been better served by letting Levitt’s ideas and analysis speak for themselves.

3. Simplistic Arguments

Some of its arguments are overly simplistic and based on incomplete or inaccurate information. For example, the book misrepresents the gun control regime in Switzerland and presents an unsound assumption that more guns equal more violence.

Levitt’s analysis of factors that influence educational and career performance is also questionable, as some of the data used are premature or incomplete. Additionally, the book’s discussion of parenting is overly simplistic and fails to distinguish between data-based advice and intuition-based advice.


Freakonomics is a groundbreaking book that challenges conventional wisdom and offers new insights into how money drives people’s choices. Levitt and Dubner’s unconventional approach to economics, combined with Levitt’s expertise in data analysis, uncover the hidden truths behind some of life’s most intriguing questions.

While their arguments are not always without controversy, their willingness to challenge popular beliefs is refreshing. Ultimately, Freakonomics encourages readers to think critically about the incentives that drive human behavior and to question their assumptions about the world around them.

Despite its flaws, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the hidden mechanisms of society and the economy.

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About The Author

Steven D. Levitt teaches economics at the University of Chicago. His unorthodox approach of using the tools of economics to reveal hidden aspects of everyday decisions has triggered debate in the media and academic circles.

Stephen J. Dubner is a former writer and editor at the New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of Turbulent Souls, Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper, and the children’s book The Boy with Two Belly Buttons.

Buy The Book: Freakonomics

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